A perfect storm has been gathering in the lubricants industry for some time: There has been increasing pressure from governments to lower vehicle emissions, and electric vehicles have almost exclusively been pegged as the answer. The vehicle parc is also aging, a trend which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic crisis.
In short, lubricant manufacturers and marketers are operating in a constantly changing world. Just as one boundary is set, it is then changed. For instance, the United Kingdom said that it will ban new gasoline and diesel car sales by 2040, but the deadline was then brought forward by a decade to 2030.
The European Emission Standards define the acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new vehicles sold in the European Union and in the European Economic Area member states. The standards cover emissions of nitrogen oxides, total hydrocarbon, non-methane hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. They are regulated for most vehicle types, including cars, trucks, locomotives, tractors and barges—but excluding seagoing ships and airplanes.
First introduced in 1992 under Euro 1, the regulations have been through a series of revisions, with the most recent Euro 6 standards announced in 2014. Through the iterations, acceptable levels of the various emissions regulated by the standards have been reduced to help improve air quality and tackle climate change. Acceptable levels vary slightly for passenger and diesel passenger cars. Light commercial vehicles and heavy-duty engines are defined differently by engine output. But all vehicle manufacturers are governed by these increasingly stringent regulations if they wish to sell into the EU.
In the context of the European Green Deal’s vision to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, the EU Commission is already working on the next evolution of the Euro standards—Euro 7. Completed proposals are due to be presented to the European Parliament at the end of 2021 and would likely come into force around 2025. While the EU is still assessing several different options for the regulations, they are already causing concern in some areas. The German Association of the Automotive Industry is already warning that the anticipated Euro 7 move could result in the combustion engine being effectively phased out as early as 2025.
“With the introduction of the planned Euro 7 standard, the EU Commission will de facto ban cars with combustion engines from 2025,” said VDA President Hildegard Müller, suggesting that if the exhaust emission limits are too strict, combustion engines will no longer be competitive.
As of yet, nothing has definitively been decided. But VDA is sounding the alarm—not just about the limit values themselves, but also about how they are tested. The study says that limit values should not only be maintained on average throughout the test but also in the peaks. “The commission wants to stipulate that in the future a vehicle must remain virtually emission-free in every driving situation—be it with a trailer on a mountain or in slow city traffic,” Müller said. “That is technically impossible and everyone knows that.”
“With the introduction of the planned Euro 7 standard, the EU Commission will de facto ban cars with combustion engines from 2025.”
– Hildegard Müller, VDA PRESIDENT
Meanwhile, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association has commissioned its own independent study with AERIS Europe. The report looked at the impact that the roll-out of the latest new Euro 6 vehicles is already having on air quality and air quality compliance rates and explored the impact that a range of potential Euro 7 standards might have in the future. The report concludes that the air quality benefit of a Euro 7 regulation would be minimal but hugely expensive if it followed what has been currently proposed by the commission’s consultants. It suggests that a more sensible approach, given the progress the automotive industry has already made toward electrification, would be to accelerate fleet replacement with the latest Euro 6 vehicles via scrappage and incentive programs that can be targeted to where there will be remaining air quality issues—for example, in certain cities with higher emissions—rather than the comprehensive and expensive approach of new Euro 7 regulations that will affect the entire EU.
Whatever the EU decides will certainly impact global shores. Changes will also impact lubricants and the wider aftermarket supply chain, as consumables cater to the demands of new, increasingly sophisticated engines.
While regulators try to press on with changes, the vehicle parc is aging. Motorists are holding onto their cars longer. One in four American cars was built in the last century. According to ACEA, passenger cars are on average 11.5 years old in the EU. Vans average 11.6 years, trucks 13 years and buses 11.7 years. In the U.K., as the COVID-19 pandemic stifled new vehicle uptake, the average age of cars on the roads rose to the highest on record at 8.4 years, according to Motorparc data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. This aging vehicle parc may cause a lag on rolling out emissions controls.
Electric vehicles might be the future, but low-carbon fuels and biofuels could provide an interim solution. The U.K. has recently moved to E10 gasoline, in line with Europe. E10 has been progressively rolled out across Europe since 2009 and is available in Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Romania and Slovakia. According to the European Environment Agency, E10 has been a success in the vast majority of member states where it was introduced, allowing for an increase in renewable fuels in the transport energy mix while lowering the GHG footprint of the fuels.
In 2019, the European Standardization Committee finalized a project titled “Engine tests with new types of biofuels and development of biofuel standards.” One of the main conclusions of the work was that from a distribution infrastructure and vehicle materials perspective, a large portion of today’s car population would be tolerant of E20 fuels, so further moves could be possible.
Hot on the heels of the German Association of Vehicle Manufacturers’ concerns about the forthcoming Euro 7 emission regulations, ACEA announced that carmakers would be open to higher carbon dioxide targets if there were a matching infrastructure ramp-up across the EU.
Currently, the debate about the future of automotive transport seems to center on electric vehicles, almost to the exclusion of anything else. From governments and OEMs alike, there has been a huge focus on electric vehicles in recent years. However, electric vehicles might not be a tenable long-term solution if lithium shortages, limited driving range and the relatively short lifespan of batteries continues to hamper technological advances for these types of products. Also, the sheer volume of charging infrastructure required—in such a short space of time—means some are investigating other options, like hydrogen. Pure electric might not be the only option.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been around since the 19th century, first developed by Sir William Grove in 1839. However, the first commercially available fuel cell-powered vehicle to appear was the Hyundai Tucson in 2013, followed by the Toyota Mirai in 2015. JLR has recently begun testing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Shell, Volvo and Daimler are all looking at hydrogen as an option, too.
Already hundreds of filling stations all over Europe are primed to dispense hydrogen fuel for these vehicles. But what are the lubricant challenges to this technology that Toyota calls the future of motoring? Fuel cell- or battery-powered electric vehicles have totally different fluid requirements from diesel- or gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. Lubricant manufacturers have been busy developing fluids to suit EV needs, catering to the increase in oxidation and the need to dissipate increased heat around the power units. Hydrogen fuel cell engines require hydrogen and oxygen to react together in a special cell to produce electricity, which can then be used within a battery to drive an electric motor.
An alternative to hydrogen fuel cell technology is the use of hydrogen as a fuel to drive vehicles, which would require mixing it with air to produce combustion in a near-conventional-type engine. Hydrogen as a source of fuel can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, including renewable power, like solar and wind, as well as natural gas, nuclear power and biomass. Its low ignition energy ensures easy ignition of an ultra-lean mixture with air. But like any fuel solution, it has its drawbacks, too, with premature ignition and knock. The combustion process of a hydrogen-fueled vehicle would produce NOx, which would also need to be cleaned by selective catalytic reduction prior to exhaust emission, much as we have now with traditional internal combustion engine vehicles and the requirement for exhaust aftertreatment devices.
Additionally, to be operable, hydrogen needs to be converted from a gas to a liquid, which means the engine needs to run at very high pressures. During engine operation, blow-by will always occur due to the rapid pressure rise and the low density of hydrogen gas. When exhaust gases enter the crankcase, they can condense if there is no provision of proper ventilation.
With gasoline or diesel, water is produced as a byproduct of the combustion process, and the same applies to hydrogen, only more so. Water mixing into the lubricant reduces its lubrication ability and, as a result, there is a real risk of a higher degree of engine wear. Specific lubricants need to be developed to cope with this dilution. A lubricant that is compatible with increased water concentration in the crankcase should be used, so that it can withstand the increased moisture levels and keep the engine fully lubricated.
It remains to be seen whether hydrogen-fueled and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will become a viable alternative to battery-powered electric vehicles. The U.K. government has signalled its intent to consider hydrogen as a worthwhile option for some forms of transport by announcing £11.2 million of funding to develop and manufacture low-cost hydrogen fuel cell technology for buses. It also intends to create a hydrogen center of excellence in Northern Ireland. The funding is part of a £54 million package for innovative green projects, intended to secure nearly 10,000 U.K. jobs and save millions of tons of carbon emissions.
The good news for lubricant manufacturers is that engines running on hydrogen still need some form of lubrication in the crankcase to keep them functioning effectively. Pistons and other moving parts need to be lubricated to ensure proper function. Lubricant manufacturers will be watching the emissions landscape closely, ready to develop the products required.
David Wright is company secretary of the Verification of Lubricant Specifications and director general of the United Kingdom Lubricants Association. He previously worked as a regional manager for fuels and lubricants with ExxonMobil.