Finished Lubricants

Automotive Lubricants Shift Toward Synthetics


Automotive Lubricants Shift Toward Synthetics
© RuskaPixs

Most would agree that automotive lubricants have undergone quite the transformation over the past few decades. While the primary job of these lubricants has remained much the same, a lot more is being asked of modern formulations. Not only must they adequately protect valuable equipment, but they must do so while operating in extreme conditions. They must also push technical boundaries to improve fuel economy and lower emissions. 

How are these increasing demands affecting how lubricants are formulated? And what other trends may be influencing the industry?

Lubes’n’Greases spoke with Pennzoil’s Sean Nguyen, lubricant scientist & technical specialist, to answer these questions and more.

Lubes’n’Greases: What are the most relevant trends in the automotive lubricants sector? Are these trends projected to continue into the next decade?

Nguyen: The North American automotive lubricant sector has seen several major changes in the past 10 years, and we anticipate that the trends that I’ll outline below will likely continue in the near future.  

One significant change is the trend toward using full synthetic and lower-viscosity motor oils. Over the past two years, more than 90% of new vehicles coming off the assembly line are factory-filled with full synthetic oils, and we anticipate that roughly 90% of vehicles on the road will require full synthetic by 2030. This movement is an attempt by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to achieve improved fuel efficiencies, extend drain intervals and help reduce waste.  

The second trend is the projected growth of hybrids and electric vehicles. Range concerns will still be a predominant factor in choosing one or the other. However, lubricant needs for hybrid and electric powertrains will be more demanding, as they are required to perform under different conditions, including higher temperatures and increased fuel and water dilution.  

Lubes’n’Greases: It seems as if there has been a big push recently to switch to fully synthetic products. What are the benefits of switching to fully synthetic oils? Have these oils achieved price parity with their mineral oil counterparts? 

Nguyen: The shift to fully synthetic motor oil is expediting the adoption of lower-viscosity weight motor oils like SAE 0W-20, 0W-16, 0W-12 and lower. These lower viscosities help to reduce lubricant frictional losses within the engine while optimizing engine performance. At the same time, these synthetic motor oils are expected to perform in harsher conditions without sacrificing wear protection, engine cleanliness and durability.  

As for price parity, the market will determine that based on demand. However, we can say that as new specifications are being introduced, like GF-7 in 2025, the performance requirements will continue to be more stringent—and both conventional and synthetic oils will have to meet these requirements. This includes factors such as additive limitations and base oil quality. Additionally, the shift from synthetic motor oil as a factory fill has grown tremendously within the past 10 years—greater than 90% in 2021 and 2022.  We expect this trend will continue for the industry.  

Lubes’n’Greases: What are some other major formulation trends (e.g., changes in additive packages, switching to sustainable or biodegradable components, etc.)? What new trends might emerge in the next few years?

Nguyen: The introduction of ILSAC GF-6 and soon-to-be GF-7 has set precedence on reducing emissions and particulate matter in addition to a reduction of metallic compounds within additive chemistries. Thus, new additive technology has been identified and introduced into lubricant formulations. At the same time, we will see the introduction of particulate filters and other technologies to meet the emission requirements set by the industry and the EPA.   

At Shell and Pennzoil, we are working to help reduce our own emissions by optimizing our manufacturing operations. We have transformed our lubricant manufacturing process by shifting 50% of our manufacturing energy to be powered by renewables. In addition, we are looking at ways to reduce and reuse our packaging materials and optimize our plants with energy-efficient LED lighting and more streamlined blending processes.  

Lubes’n’Greases: How are today’s engine oils being adapted to best lubricate changing engine technology?

Nguyen: Being the number one lubricant producer for over 16 years, Shell’s advantage is our close collaboration with our OEMs and industry relationships. By sharing ideas and advancements, we can be at the forefront of what is coming down the pike for the consumer. Our relationship with our racing partners, like Penske and Ferrari, allows us to push the envelope when it comes to motor oil performance and protection—like our Pennzoil Ultra Platinum motor oil and other new products that will be introduced in the near future.  

These relationships give us an opportunity to see what new technologies are coming and collaboratively design lubricants specific to engine demands, like electric vehicle fluids, hybrid fluids and other lubricants. Each product gives the consumer the benefit of high performance in extreme temperatures, lower volatility and superior aeration characteristics.    

Lubes’n’Greases: Many experts believe that internal combustion engine vehicles will be phased out in the coming years. Will this affect R&D of new ICE lubricants? Why or why not?

Nguyen: We anticipate that ICE vehicles will still be part of the foreseeable future, and manufacturers will find newer ways to increase engine efficiency. Shell plans to be in this space to work closely with OEMs as they face this challenge. Additionally, we are internally making efforts to optimize our additive and base oil technology to meet the needs of the industry, regulatory bodies as well as our sustainability goals. 

We look forward to the challenge and to helping our consumers and the industry for years to come.  

Sydney Moore is managing editor of Lubes’n’Greases magazine. Contact her at