Very Veggie: Alternatives to Canola Oil
Vegetable oils have overcome numerous obstacles and are now viable replacements for standard crude-based base stocks. This isn’t just because they’re environmentally friendly. In fact, these products can outperform traditional offerings in certain areas. But global vegetable oil inventories have tightened, and suppliers are scrambling to offer alternatives.
Rapeseed oil is one of the largest sources of vegetable oils in the world, with applications spanning from food-grade oils to biodiesel to lubricants. One derivative of this is canola oil, which is most often associated with food applications but can be used as a biobased oil in lubricants.
Supply of these vegetable oils has been on the downswing this year. Global events have led to dwindling supply, and with more common uses of these oils already eating up much of the demand, the smaller trickledown has had its effect on the lubricants industry.
Canada, the largest exporter of canola oil globally, is expecting a drop in production this year. The government agency Statistics Canada projects canola seed acreage to dip 7%.
Other sectors of the vegetable oil industry have experienced a domino effect. Indonesia is the biggest exporter of palm oil, which accounts for approximately one-third of all vegetable oil production. Earlier this year, the country put a halt on exports for three weeks to reduce domestic prices of cooking oil. Palm oil is also used for biofuels and personal care products.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has lessened supply of sunflower oil; Ukraine supplies half of all sunflower oil exports. While sunflower oil isn’t used to make lubricants, its use in cooking and cosmetic products means manufacturers must secure supply from elsewhere.
Mark Miller, CEO of Indianapolis-based estolides producer Biosynthetic Technologies, said canola oil and rapeseed, along with synthetic esters, are among the most commonly used feedstocks for biobased oils. Now, companies are having difficulties getting canola oil.
“Because people are utilizing vegetable oil products to make renewable diesel fuels, the market has gone upside down and topsy turvy; the prices have gone through the roof for all vegetable oils, making specialty products like estolides and polyols more affordable,” he said. Miller noted those price increases happened in the past nine months but are starting to level out. “Still, we’ve yet to see the complete impact.”
Canola oil is typically more expensive than soy oil but significantly cheaper than synthetic esters, he continued.
Miller said he believes companies that make canola-based products are struggling. “I think there are so many links in the supply chain that are difficult, so people are looking for alternatives.”
One such alternative being offered is Sea-Land Chemical Co.’s SeacoChem ProHEAR Oil. This product uses high erucic acid mustard seed oil, which is from the same family as rapeseed and canola vegetable oils and contains similar lubricity properties as traditional high erucic rapeseed oil, according to the company. It also offers increased lubricity compared to many conventional vegetable and seed oils.
Erucic acid is a monosaturated omega-9 fatty acid found in certain plant seeds and oils, denoted as 22:1. It can be used for a number of applications, such as adhesives, cosmetics, plastics and pharmaceuticals. It can also be used to make lubricants and surfactants.
High erucic acid rapeseed is a product of plant breeding. It can contain anywhere from 20%-54% erucic acid. On the other end of the spectrum, lower erucic acid levels in rapeseed make for canola oil, which can be limited to 2% for food-grade oils.
Sea-Land says its ProHEAR oil contains 22% erucic fatty acid content. The high erucic oils are used in industrial lubricants and metalworking fluids as well as textile lubricants, plasticizers, rubber processes and oleochemical intermediates.
The company touts the product as a canola oil and rapeseed replacement. Sea-Land said the mustard oil has better lubricity than canola oil, and that it is specifically offering the product because of global vegetable oil shortages.
Sea-Land said SeacoChem ProHEAR Oil has good oxidative stability, high viscosity index, low aquatic toxicity and is biodegradable. The oil is also compatible with mineral oils.
C22:1 is a reference to the carbon chain distribution and structure of vegetable oils. This chain is longer than conventional C14 to C18 fatty acid-based vegetable oils and seed oils, giving it increased lubricity.
“While I don’t specifically know ProHEAR, I do like some mustard and seed oils, and I think there’s some real opportunities for them,” Miller said. “In the past they were very difficult to get ahold of. It’s an interesting play because it doesn’t compete with food. That’s one of the issues with soy and canola because they do compete with the food, while mustard seeds don’t do that.”
One issue with high erucic acid rapeseed is availability. Miller said the market is limited. “It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg. The farmers have to grow a very specialized crop, but they need to have the demand for the material. We in the industry can’t start creating products with new materials until we know that the feedstock is available. I haven’t seen enough farmers growing HEAR crops.”
Miller noted that the drive toward sustainability is encouraging producers to be innovative with formulations using different feedstocks regardless of the current landscape.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that more and more people will begin working not only with mustard seeds, algae and castor oils but will explore a wide range of feedstocks for sustainable base oils,” Miller said.
Will Beverina is assistant editor for Lubes’n’Greases. Contact him at Will@LubesnGreases.com