Leave No Trace
By now you’ve probably heard of the push for carbon neutrality. It’s gone from a buzz term to the focus of tangible business strategies and government policies. This extends to the world of base oils and lubricants, in which companies are making pledges to become more sustainable in the next 10 to 15 years. At least a few companies are now marketing carbon neutral and even carbon negative base stocks. How will such offerings position these companies in the market?
Another carbon neutral base stock is entering the fray, promising a product with comparable performance to traditional competitors. Neste’s NEXBASE 4+ base oil is a novel, carbon neutral API Group III+ base oil produced in partnership with Novvi. The new product is formulated with more than 60% plant-based molecules.
Neste’s partner Novvi recently released its SynNova base stock, also a Group III+ offering, which is a carbon negative product consisting of plant-based material. It is made of a hydrocarbon with no double bonds or esters.
These base stocks come at a time when engine oil formulations are lowering in viscosity. “It allows our customers to use the NEXBASE slate without the need for higher group base stocks like PAOs or esters when they are targeting 0W formulations, which are extremely important today” for automotive original equipment manufacturers, said Kari Kulmala, technical product manager at Neste. “We designed NEXBASE 4+ in such a way that it fits in nicely for 0W-30 engine oils as well as lower viscosity grades like 0W-20, 0W-16 and most likely 0W-12 in the coming years. We believe NEXBASE 4+ fits really nicely for the most demanding European OEM approvals.”
Neste also expects its new product to also meet General Motors’ Dexos1 Gen 3 specification. “I believe that GM Dexos1 Gen 3 is a great example where we are able to benefit the properties of NEXBASE 4+,” Kulmala said. “We should be able to meet all the requirements, although there are new engine tests, so we’ll have to wait and see what will be the final formulation.”
The hook of these new base stocks is performance that rivals traditional options. Both Neste and Novvi claim their new products are on par or even exceed the performance of other base oils currently on the market.
Neste says the NEXBASE 4+ product can be used as a drop-in replacement for “fossil-based” Group III+ base oils and PAOs in low-viscosity, low-volatility engine oils. “It can be a replacement for PAO, Group III+ or anything in between,” Ed Potter, head of specialty products at Neste, said.
More of these carbon neutral base oils could be on the way, according to Ernie Henderson, president of K&E Petroleum Consulting, though it may not be so soon. “I would like to believe that this trend toward new types of base oils like plant-based will continue into the future,” he told Lubes’n’Greases. “I would also anticipate this to be later than earlier.”
In a competitive Group III market, Henderson points out, it’s a big time and financial commitment for any company to develop such a product. “Lube companies are interested in differentiation and creating new high-margin market opportunities. And until a new market is identified and its value quantified, new base oil development will be slowed in terms of commercialization,” he explained. “Just consider the number of years and effort that Novvi has taken to get to the position that they are in today.”
Though Neste has not disclosed the production volume of its NEXBASE 4+ product, Novvi has one manufacturing facility in Houston, Texas, capable of producing 25,000 metric tons per year of base stocks.
“I would hope that we would be able to see a second facility of similar size within the next 3 to 5 years to validate the market for these new base oils,” said Henderson.
Lubricant companies are pledging to go carbon neutral. Oil major Shell pledged earlier this year to become a net-zero emissions business by 2050, which includes plans to offset the annual emissions of more than 200 million liters of synthetic lubricants, compensating about 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per year.
What remains to be seen is how other companies that might make a similar commitment will achieve a carbon-neutral operation. Shell, for example, purchases carbon credits to help realize its goal. Carbon credits are permits that allow a company to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide, a cap which is periodically reduced to incentivize companies to lower their emissions.
For lubricant blenders making commitments to lower their emissions, these carbon neutral base stocks can be one potential way to achieve that. Fuchs, which says it is a carbon neutral company as of January 2020—in part because it also purchases carbon credits similar to Shell—says that raw materials account for 90% of a finished lubricant product’s material.
What remains to be seen is how other companies that might make a similar commitment will achieve a carbon-neutral operation.
Still, Henderson does not see a near future where these carbon neutral base oils dominate the market. They can gain a foothold in the market, but potential challenges could include unreliability of supply and the question of what would happen to the market if other similar base oils are introduced. Acceptance by industry bodies like API, ILSAC and ACEA is another question. Will the industry consider new categories, or will producers possibly seek new categories for these base oils to differentiate them from crude-based Group I, II and III base stocks?
But obtaining approvals and matching performance of other products as motor oil viscosity lowers is an important first step for carbon neutral base oils. “From what I have seen, these new base oils have the ability to achieve industry approvals in the automotive area,” said Henderson. “Testing to achieve automotive industry status is step number one, taking it to the next level in terms of OEM approval and acceptance will be a considerable challenge in terms of time and cost. The investment needs to be weighed against the business opportunity.
“It will also be interesting to see if new tests, both bench and bench-engine, are introduced from an industry and/or OEM perspective to validate the performance of these new base oils,” Henderson said.
Will Beverina is assistant editor for Lubes’n’Greases. Contact him at Will@LubesnGreases.com