Look at any random engine lube in China, be it a foreign brand or domestic, and youll see that green or eco-friendly is frequently used to give the product a competitive edge.
But what exactly does green mean? According to the labels, it means the lubricant is blended using highly refined API Group III base oils or synthetic base stocks that promise to reduce the vehicles tailpipe emissions.
Now, another concept – biodegradability – wants to be part of the picture.
In June at a U.S.-China low-carbon summit in Beijing, Danfer Lubricants introduced its biosynthetic engine oil collection, made from ester base oils derived from castor oil. The Yongkang, Zhejiang province-based lube supplier said the oils have stable performance down to -50 degrees Celsius. The products – including SAE 0W-40 and 5W-40 grades claiming API SM performance, and a CH-4-type 10W-50 diesel oil – are marked as fuel efficient and able to run 20,000 km without changes.
These engine oils are the result of years of research and experiments, said Cui Xiaoying, vice director at Nankai Universitys engineering research center for castor oil in Tianjin, which developed Danfers biosynthetic technologies.
Dr. Cui told LubesnGreases that the center has been working with experts from high-profile oil companies like Sinopec and PetroChina (CNPC) to develop proprietary catalysts to process the oil extracted from castor plants, at the centers own farm in Xinjiang. We also developed biodegradable additives to make 90 percent biodegradable lubes possible, she added.
Aside from Danfer and national majors, the center is working with synthetic lubricant supplier Synacol, part of Tianjin Heng Di Bioenergy Ltd. Its biobased engine oils wear the Miguel brand, and Synacol also has a collection of castor oil-based gear oils and industrial lubes.
But, Cui said, despite the fact that the lubes are biodegradable and fuel efficient, sales are not climbing fast. Biodegradable is a very new concept for Chinese consumers. Right now, price is still the primary factor for a consumer to make a buying decision, she said. She added the biosynthetic lubes are in general 15 percent more expensive than the conventional products produced from mineral oils.
Gong Wei, an analyst at SCI International in Zibo, Shandong province, agrees with her. SCI is a consulting firm with a focus on energy and chemical. At the current stage, Chinese lube companies are still very much focused on buying Group II and Group III base stocks, usually from overseas, to produce high quality lubes, he said. However, he continued, it could be easier for ester oils to sell outside China, especially to the emerging markets which dont have strict regulations like the developed markets.
Early this year, China eased the ban on petroleum exports to allow Chinese lube companies to sell their products overseas. Although supportive tax policies are not in place yet, experts see it as an effort to ease Chinas lube overcapacity. However, castor and other biobased lubes have a head start in going abroad, since they are not refined from petroleum.
Looking outside for opportunities is indeed what the castor oil research center is after, as it has got itself into the United Nations Development Program to seek overseas partnerships, ideally in industrial areas such as food manufacturing, said Cui. We hope to promote our technologies in the global market through working with foreign lube companies, she said.
As the idea of biodegradable is more widely marketed and promoted, she believes that consumers will become educated and think more about fuel efficiency and being eco-friendly than price alone. I think it probably takes some time for us to see significant growth in sales, she said.
But pricing doesnt seem to bother Beijing Run Hua Yuan Tian Biological Technology Co., which launched its own engine oil line, Yuan Tian No. 1, in March. Three of its grades are licensed to APIs SN gasoline engine oil category.
According to the company, No. 1 is based on esters processed from vegetable oils, using enzymes as a sort of catalyst. Heavily marketed as a green, biodegradable oil, No.1 SAE 5W-40 is priced at 150 yuan ($22.40) per liter, far above the 87.8 yuan price of Shells synthetic Helix HXS8 of the same grade. RHYT is confident about the pricing, and says No.1 beats its rival in every aspect of the API specifications.
For example, while the Helix formulation has a viscosity index of 168, No.1 scores 179; HXS8s flash point is 215 C, and No.1 reaches 239 C. In a rare move for a Chinese private lubricants company, RHYT actually sent its No.1 series out for testing against the API standard – and posted the results on its website.
Its a proof that China doesnt have to rely on foreign technologies to produce biosynthetic lubes, RHYT president Zhang Liping told Peoples Daily, Chinas state-run news agency. He added it is important because biosynthetics have great potential in major industries such as power generation and military manufacturing.
In Hangzhou, Youmi Chemical, whose product portfolio includes monoesters, pentaerythritol, trimethylolpropane triacrylate, borate, fatty alcohols and fatty acids, is also pushing aggressively into the sector.
Our esters can be used under wide temperature ranges, from -58 C to 280 C. Most of them are eco-friendly and biodegradable, said Wan Liexiong, senior engineer at Youmi.
Unlike the castor oil research center at Nankai University, Youmi does not own any plant farm; instead, it buys raw materials such as palm oil and coconut oil from suppliers – which might be the reason it carries a higher price tag, similar to polyalphaolefins, said Wan.
But we are not charging too much as we are still testing the market. Now we want to attract clients as many as possible, Wan said, adding the company sells about 1,000 tons of esters each year.
In the marine oil sector, Sinopec showed its ambition for biodegradable oils by introducing a biodegradable stern tube oil under the Great Wall brand in April. Manufactured in Sinopecs facility in Singapore, the stern tube oil complies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencys Vessel General Permit program that requres ships to use rapidly biodegradable lubes anywhere theres a risk of contact with U.S. waters. It also is approved by Tokyo-based marine engineering company Kemel as its OEM partner, according to Sinopec.
In Urumqi, in northwest China, the Xinjiang Technical Institute of Physics & Chemistry (XTI) inked a deal in January with Shenzhen Sifang Fine Chemicals to build a lube facility in Shenzhen to produce biodegradable lubes using XTIs strength in ester oils and vegetable oils.
Part of the China Academy of Sciences, XTI reports that its researchers recently used sunflower oil and cottonseed oil to develop two copolymers that have higher viscosities than conventional ester oils. Because Xinjiang is a famous cotton growing region, XTI says the rich supply helps lower the cost.
It is clear that Chinese companies are determined to compete against foreign companies in the still-marginal biosynthetics sector – but multinationals are already well positioned.
In May, during a visit to Beijing, Hanno Wentzler, CEO of Germanys Freudenberg Chemical Specialties, said that his company – which is the parent of Kluber Lubrication – foresees its sales continuing to grow in mainland China, despite the current economic slowdown. Wentzler said he is confident about future growth thanks to Chinas tremendous efforts in pushing clean energy. He expects to see the country deploy large numbers of wind turbines that will need to be serviced with high quality products, like Freudenbergs newly developed 100 percent biodegradable, energy-saving lubes.
Another example is Malaysia-based KLK Oleo, which has quickly become a major ester supplier to China. Since entering China three years ago, the company now sells 3,000 to 4,000 tons of esters in the country each year, under the brand name Palmester, said its China sales manager, Maggie Yan.
Our esters are mostly used to produce metalworking fluids and hydraulic oils. Some of them are made from palm oil so they are biodegradable, she said. Yan added that KLK Oleos vast palm plantations give it a great advantage in terms of controlling its ester quality.
Palmester 2083, for example, is a trimethylolpropane trioleate with a flash point as high as 294 C and a pour point down to -51 C. The company calls it ideal for producing biodegradable, fire-resistant hydraulic oils and metalworking fluids.
We grow palm trees, have our own research teams and manufacture in our own facilities, so we can control the entire supply chain. Thats why we offer stable quality with competitive prices, Yan added.