Sustainable Additives Drive Innovation for Automotive Lubricants


Sustainable Additives Drive Innovation for Automotive Lubricants
© Paulista; Blue Planet Studio; zapp2photo; lianez

Perceptions of sustainable additives have transformed from paradox to convergence, as the upstream supply chain grasps the nascent range of opportunities available to lower the carbon footprint of the automotive lubricants sector. From traceability of upstream feedstock derivatives and the creation of a greener manufacturing infrastructure, to the subsequent performance and durability of lubricants, several factors unite to contribute to additives’ sustainability profile. 

EU certification schemes for lubricants, like the EU’s Ecolabel and ISCC PLUS, also contribute to changing mindsets for chemicals and renewable feedstocks derived from renewable energy sources. 

Lubes’n’Greases spoke with innovation leaders in the additives value chain to investigate a market on the cusp of change.

A Shift in Paradigm

Elisa Swanson-Parbäck, business development director, sustainable lubricants for Sweden-based Perstorp, explained that the company’s resins and coatings segment leads the sustainability charge at Perstorp. Interestingly, though, the company reported its lubricant and automotive sectors are now moving fast to become early adopters, especially in Europe. 

John Uhran, senior director, government affairs and sustainability for additive major Lubrizol, has also observed a shift in behaviors across sectors: “Five years ago, I would have said that the sustainability needs of our Personal Care business were having the greatest impact on our sustainability activities, and we were indeed applying what we learned from that business to other markets. Today, we are finding great benefit from having a diverse portfolio of businesses, as each market segment has its own expectations related to sustainability.”

To set the value chain in context, Swanson-Parbäck cited five “cradle-to-gate” factors considered to be most important to the automotive lubricants sector. “We do see the need to take all aspects into account and review the full impact of a product in terms of less dependency on virgin-fossils and reduced product carbon footprint, as well as environmental considerations, all the while maintaining or exceeding performance in use.”

  • Raw materials used to make the additive should be sourced from renewable resources or recycled.
  • Manufacturing processes should utilize green energy.
  • Additives should prolong the useful life of lubricants, thus reducing their environmental impact. 
  • Additives should be environmentally friendly.
  • Additives should contribute to fuel economy, thus reducing dependency on natural resources and cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

Drivers for Sustainable Automotive Lubricants 

Kevin Poindexter, sustainability manager at additive major Infineum, explained it is first necessary to define the scope of a sustainable additive. “Defining an additive as ‘sustainable’ is complex and requires broad consideration of many environmental, economic and social factors,” he said. “Even narrowing the focus to GHG emissions requires assessment of an additive’s contribution across its life cycle, coupled with its in-use impact. Contributing to fuel economy and lubricant life are both very important in relation to GHG emissions reduction for the lubricant end user. But this alone does not reduce the additive product’s carbon footprint or scope emissions for the additive manufacturer and lubricant blender. That is why it’s critical to reduce the additive’s carbon footprint whilst maintaining in-use performance.”

As a past UEIL President for six years, Valentina Serra-Holm, president engineered fluids, recognizes the responsibilities that emanate from Perstorp’s unique position as a primary source of sustainable feedstock. “Across our entire product portfolio, Perstorp’s approach to sustainability is determined by both the markets we operate in and our own manufacturing facilities,” she said. “We acknowledge that, due to our unique upstream position in the value chain, the transformations we initiate enable a parallel sustainability transformation within our customers and markets, since our products act as a catalyst to transition in several end industries.” 

Serra-Holm outlined the factors driving Perstorp’s environmental mantra: “Back in 2017, Perstorp set itself the long-term goal to become ‘Finite Material Neutral.’ This meant shifting away from all virgin fossil raw materials and energy, and transitioning to renewable, recycled or recovered raw materials at all our production plants globally. Today, our approach to sustainability consists of three areas: enable, transform and care. These three areas are interconnected and simultaneously ensure a holistic approach to optimize our sustainability work.”

She continued: “Care is the foundation of how we act respectfully in all situations from health and safety to responsible sourcing, product stewardship and ethical business practices. Transform is about reducing our own impact by driving our own transformation within several areas. We enable more sustainable solutions for our customers and value chains in two ways—both by supplying sustainable products and by enabling longer lifetime and recyclability of end products. This gives us the opportunity to drive change within the entire global value chains.”

Customer Pull

How are customers driving the search for sustainable solutions and influencing industry behaviors? 

“We have witnessed a shift in the lubricant industry as well, primarily due to increasing demands from OEMs,” Serra-Holm said.

This seems to hold true, as the OEM playbook is already prominent in the marine segment, where MAN ‘s latest engines are driving the adoption timetable for new fuels and lubricants (i.e. green methanol and ammonia) for shipping by working directly with the world’s largest shipping companies, which have their own sustainability agendas, as do their principal retail customers. In effect, this pull causes a chain reaction along the downstream value chain. 

Serra-Holm believes the desire for transparency along the value chain will override cost issues: “We see a greater will within the industry to pay a premium for sustainable raw materials. We observe that transparent and fact-based communication to our first, second and third tier customers is an important tool in supporting this, and we believe that it is our role to convey the importance of sustainability along the value chains.” 

Poindexter agreed. “The related focus of our lubricant blender customers over the past few years has been in collecting data to understand the contribution of additives to the product carbon footprint of their lubricants,” he said. “We’re also receiving formal requests to explain our overall sustainability efforts and targets. Many of our customers now have corporate GHG emission reduction targets and are working out how these apply to different parts of their lubricants business. More recently, we’re seeing specific targets on product carbon footprint reduction and/or circular content, which we expect to be increasingly factored into future sourcing decisions.”

Renewable Feedstocks Unlock Potential 

What are the potential benefits of sourcing biobased raw materials?

“Bio-derived and circular raw materials can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of additives and finished lubricants. There are already several such materials available on the market,” Poindexter said. “The question is more around available capacity and cost. A good example is rerefined base oil, which can be used to displace virgin base oil as additive diluent. But there is competition with RRBO demand for finished lubricant products and therefore a need for investment in additional industry capacity. This should help drive improvement in used oil collection rates and expansion of rerefining, resulting in more overall circularity in the lubricants market.” 

Uhran agreed that capacity and cost are issues with many lower footprint raw materials. “It is a challenge to find cost-effective bio-derived or recycled replacements for the petrochemical feedstocks used to make the additives that we sell,” he said. “We have also found that lower footprint raw materials frequently are not available at the volumes we desire. The good news on this front is that demand is driving investments in both new capacity and new sources of raw materials.”  

Poindexter expanded the connection between circularity and sustainability: “An essential element of sustainability is circularity, or the circular economy (i.e. reusing and extending the lifetime of materials and products for as long as possible). Rerefined base oils as an alternative for virgin base oils represent one example, since base oils make up a part of modern additive components and a substantial part of finished formulations. Converting components present in waste streams for use in additives or additives at the end of life in one application into another application are additional examples of sustainability.”

Gemma Stephenson of Cargill Bioindustrial expressed similar thoughts in a paper published last September by the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers. “The entire lubricants value chain is on a journey toward sustainable growth through better use of resources and the materials that make up lubricant formulations used today,” she said. “Demands from end users intertwined with tightening legislation to meet climate ambitions are forcing OEMs and the rest of the value chain to rethink and redesign their products to fit the new sustainability agenda.”

Stephenson believes there are applications where sustainable additives are justifiably inescapable, like when lubricants are used in environmentally sensitive areas where there is the risk of leakage to the environment. 

Uhran agreed. “Our EcoAssurant product line is an example of responding to a specific customer sustainability need,” he said. “Industrial end uses, where there is some likelihood that lubricants may end up in the environment, are excellent opportunities to utilize lubricants which meet the EAL requirements.” 

Operational Behaviors 

Poindexter explained the drive to reduce GHG emissions from Infineum’s manufacturing plants is already underway. “Earlier this year, Infineum announced we have increased our ambitions to reduce scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions intensity by 50% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. We have also extended our effort over the past couple of years to include our upstream supply chain and our ambitions are to reduce scope 3 GHG emissions by 20% by 2030,” he said. “We are engaging with customers to  understand the value of these solutions to them and their customers.”

Uhran also stressed Lubrizol’s focus on operations. “Our approach to sustainability is to both reduce our footprint and increase our handprint,” he said. “To achieve this, we must have the operational perspective that leads to reduced impact from our operations as well as energy and steam, plus the customer-market perspective to develop lower impact raw material supply and improve the positive impact of our products.”

Internal initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint from an internal operation perspective are gathering pace at Perstorp. “The requirements for our sustainable Pro-Environment product portfolio are that the products are produced from partly or fully renewable or recycled origin; have a reduced product carbon footprint; are ISCC PLUS certified; and are based on an ISCC PLUS certified traceable mass balance concept,” Swanson-Parbäck said. “All our products for the lubricant industry come in both virgin fossil and Pro-Environment versions. Our goal is to have our product portfolio fully sustainable based on this concept. One important enabler is to secure the raw materials needed for this transition. So, we are working closely with our suppliers and developing our own projects, such as Project Air.” 

Project Air—which substitutes fossil-derived methanol used by Perstorp in Europe as raw material with sustainable methanol—deploys carbon capture and utilization, integrated with an electrolysis process using purified wastewater, to generate renewable electricity. 

“The realization of Project Air will be the next big game changer for Perstorp; when in operation it will provide circular methanol for our captive use and this allows a decrease in our product carbon footprint, cradle-to-gate,” Swanson-Parbäck said. “Simplified, Project Air will contribute to the reduction of Sweden’s total carbon emissions by 1%.”

Supply Chain Complexity 

It’s worth questioning whether the drive toward sustainability could add complexity that may increase the overall supply chain’s carbon footprint. 

Uhran sees it as a balancing act. “To the extent that new materials need to be kept separate, there certainly is additional complexity,” he said. “This is one of the many challenges as we try to become more sustainable. Our goal is to keep complexity and our overall footprint as low as possible. So, if we can completely replace one material with another, or mix a new feedstock with the traditional one, we can avoid increasing complexity. Depending on the new feedstock, the positive impact on footprint may far outweigh the negative impact of the additional complexity.”

This is being monitored at Infineum, too. “Our current focus is on incorporating lower-carbon materials into our products with minimal disruption to our operations,” Poindexter said. “This could result in more complexity in our sourcing strategies and related decision-making, which means we need to continue adapting our processes to help manage this issue.”

Ultimately, the adoption of sustainable additives will be spurred by first and second tier customers and by pressure from regulators. Those promulgating behavior change within their organizations will now be heard, calling for a more sustainable future and leading to a systematic shift in thinking for lubricant additives.  

Michael Herson works for London-based The Strategy Works, a strategy insight and value chain consultancy specializing in the lubricants and marine sectors. He can be contacted at