Biobased Lubricants

Bio-based and Sustainable: When They’re Synonyms and When They’re Not


Bio-based and Sustainable: When They’re Synonyms and When They’re Not
© imacoconut; lianez; VAZZEN; CKA

The word “sustainability” is being used more often in marketing campaigns as the world contends with the ongoing and growing effects of climate change. From food to skin care to automobiles, companies are pledging that their products are more “sustainable” than their competitors’ products are, and lubricant manufacturers are no strangers to the practice. 

More lubricant customers than ever before have been asking for their lubricant products to be “sustainable,” and many times “sustainable” is conflated with “bio-based.” This perception, though understandable, fundamentally misconstrues what those terms mean. While some bio-based lubricants are sustainable, not all are—and it is important to understand the nuanced differences between the two.

Why Now?

Consumers are more socially aware and are putting pressure on governments and companies alike to consider sustainability in all their actions. However, building a sustainable future for the planet isn’t something any one person, country or company can do on its own. Instead, a coordinated effort is necessary. 

More corporations around the world have become aware of the critical role they can play in building a sustainable future and are putting together documented plans to ensure their businesses minimize their negative effects on the environment. 

These forces are combining to create momentum toward building a more sustainable world—and it will only continue to grow in the future. Lubricants can play an important role in that.

How Are Biolubricants Defined?

Manufacturers are working hard every day to create products with lower environmental impacts, and biolubricants make up one of the most important categories of these products. Biolubricants are non-toxic and biodegradable, meaning they decompose over time into a combination of simpler byproducts (known as primary biodegradation) or a combination of carbon dioxide and water (known as ultimate biodegradation). Lubricants that degrade 60% or more within 28 days are considered “readily biodegradable.”

Bio-based lubricants also must contain more than 25% of bio-based carbon. Common examples of such materials include (though are not limited to):

  • Rapeseed
  • Soybean
  • Sunflower
  • Palm
  • Tallow
  • Coconut
  • Cellulosic sugar

The need for biolubricants crosses many industries, including marine, agriculture, construction, mining and offshore power generation (like wind turbines). Around the world, the full market estimate ranges between 200 and 250 kilotons of finished fluid and is expected to grow between 3.5% and 5.6% by 2024. Hydraulic fluids account for 38% of the market globally, while 49% of that volume is produced in North America. 

Part of the push for biolubricants is regulatory, as governments around the world put legislation in place to protect the environment from harm. After all, significant volumes of industrial fluids are discharged each year into the environment through machine leakage, spills and careless disposal. The aim of biolubricants is to address these issues and fill the demand for lower environmental impact fluids. 

In short, biolubricants are designed to protect the environment. In the event of a leak or an accidental spill, these lubricants will not harm the environment. They must be non-toxic and non-bioaccumulative. They are particularly useful in equipment that is being used in environmentally sensitive areas, including those near water bodies, forestry, mining and even golf courses. However, they are not required to take into account the total carbon footprint of the development of the finished product.

Environmentally acceptable lubricants (EALs) are the gold standard of biolubricants. EALs demonstrate ready biodegradability, minimal aquatic toxicity and non-bioaccumulative potential while being created from bio-based raw materials. Most EALs meet environmental credentials and are typically approved by competent regulatory bodies. While protecting the environment is paramount for EALs, they meet performance requirements and protect equipment parts. The best-in-class EALs meet the industry standards and original equipment manufacturers’ specifications (e.g., ISO 15380, JCMAS HKB, Eaton and Denison) while also meeting the high standards required by the environmental labeling bodies, like EU Ecolabel, Blue Angel, VGP and USDA BioPreferred. 

What Makes a Lubricant Sustainable?

While biolubricants focus on the end products, sustainable lubricants are defined by the way they are produced. As companies strive to reduce their overall environmental impact, sustainability throughout their supply chains becomes crucial. After all, companies often make public commitments to their shareholders and to consumers that they will try to operate in an environmentally sensitive manner.

In addition, cities and towns across the globe are making strong pushes to protect their environments. Together, the commitments of the companies and the communities are creating new demands for sustainable lubricants. Not only is sustainability the right thing to do for the planet and its people, but it is also a vital driver of the health and growth of companies worldwide. As such, it is incumbent upon corporations to take their sustainability commitments seriously. 

Part of making sure those commitments are fulfilled is undertaking life cycle analyses (LCA) before new technologies are developed. The LCA process provides key insights into the overall sustainability of a product. It focuses on the environmental effects of products from raw material extraction all the way through disposal or recycling. This holistic approach evaluates sustainability, without overemphasizing one phase of a product’s life cycle over another in the evaluation. It also allows products to be compared more precisely and takes the potentially unintended consequences of production into account. Simply put, performing an LCA for a product allows development teams to engage with their suppliers and customers as they strive to create more sustainable products. LCAs ensure that companies are thinking about the long-term sustainability of their products and provide consistent criteria against which to measure that.

When discussing sustainability, two commonly used terms must be understood for the sustainability of a product to be measured accurately: footprint and handprint. In product development, the footprint is the effect a person, company or activity directly has on the environment. This includes such factors as the amount of natural resources consumed or the harmful gases produced.

In contrast, the handprint focuses on the positive effect of a product during use. It is in the measurement of handprint that the balance of performance and sustainability goals must be struck. The entire development team must focus on the handprint to create a truly sustainable product.

A product that has a lower life cycle impact and offers an improved handprint for customers compared to conventional technology will be more sustainable. This does not necessarily need to be non-toxic, non-bioaccumulative and bio-based, especially in scenarios where it is extremely unlikely to have contact with the environment. LCAs are crucial in the creation of sustainable lubricants. Before a sustainable lubricant can be brought to market, it must be tested extensively and prove that it offers significant improvements over more conventional technologies, while still meeting the strict standards necessary to be called a biolubricant.

Sustainable lubricants are an emerging market. At present, no industry standards exist that mandate specific LCAs to label a lubricant sustainable. However, as pressure builds on manufacturers to create lubricants that don’t have negative environmental impact, from the time they are manufactured to the time they are disposed of or recycled, the industry is expected to implement standards and reporting requirements to ensure the sustainability status has been verified. Truly sustainable biolubricants—which are non-toxic, non-bioaccumulative and have a low LCA—will be an important market going forward. 

What This Means to You

While the market for biolubricants and sustainable biolubricants is expected to grow significantly over time, they will probably never fully replace conventional lubricants unless there is a potential environmental need or oil marketers need them to meet sustainability goals. Growth will also be slowed by the increased costs that biolubricants bring, though that cost barrier will become less important over time as end users start to build those costs into their projections.

Additionally, not every lubricant application will require biolubricant technology. Transmission fluids in automobiles, for example, will not need to meet the stringent requirements to protect the environment because they are less likely to affect it. But in situations where governments mandate their use or in situations where the lubricants might significantly damage the environment (like marine or agricultural applications), biolubricants are expected to become standard.

Many companies are trying to develop sustainable lubricants with improved LCAs and base oils. More sustainable lubricants are expected to come to market in the coming years and to become more common. As you are selecting lubricants for your machines, it will be important to seek sustainable biolubricants to stay in compliance with government regulations and be a good steward of the environment.  

Shubhamita Basu, is North America product manager for The Lubrizol Corporation.

Tom Wolak is industrial technology development manager for The Lubrizol Corporation, which is based in Wickliffe, Ohio.