With 82 million people and a GDP of 2,570 billion (US $3,269 billion), Germany represents the largest population and economy in the European Union, and the worlds fourth-largest economy. Its a manufacturing dynamo, with exports of hard goods – chiefly industrial machinery, passenger cars, automotive components and chemicals – generating 46 percent of its GDP. One in five German workers is employed in the manufacturing sector, in its auto plants and mines, steel mills and railroads, power plants, cement mills, food, paper and other factories.
All this creates an abiding thirst for advanced industrial lubricants, observes Karl-Josef Minis of Fuchs Europe Schmierstoffe GmbH in Mannheim, Germany, a leading independent lubricant manufacturer. The countrys total consumption of lubricants surpassed 1 million metric tons in 2011, 1.8 percent higher than in 2010, and industrial products (process oils, hydraulic fluids, turbine oils, gear oils, compressor lubes, metalworking and cutting oils, etc.) made up over half the lubes sold. Yet one of the highest-tech products has a relatively small share of this volume: lubricating greases.
Greases make up just 3 percent of Germanys lubricants volume, Minis said in an April 30 presentation to the European Lubricating Grease Institute, and they face outsize challenges: environmental issues, demands for higher performance at reduced cost, and uncertainty in sourcing some key raw materials.
Looking closely at the market in Germany, greases have bounced back remarkably from the economic downturn of 2009, Minis said. That year saw grease demand bottom out at just 17,800 metric tons, but it came roaring back the next year to 35,700 metric tons, well above pre-recession levels. Minis, who is head of product management for lubricating greases at Fuchs, attributed the 2010 spike in sales to refilling of inventories and backlogged orders, and believes that 2011s sales, which eased back to 33,800 tons, were more consistent with current market conditions.
Fifty-nine percent of lubricating greases are used in general industry, 36 percent in automotive applications, and 5 percent in food processing and packaging, he told the groups annual gathering, which was held in Munich. The food industry, in fact, has been an especially bright spot, and is growing rapidly as government and people look at this application, and industry is under more pressure to use approved products.
Today, Germany ranks seventh in the world in terms of overall grease demand, behind China, the United States, India, Japan, Russia and Brazil, he added. The country has 14 active grease plants – a drop of 60 percent over the past 25 years. There were 34 plants operating here in the 1980s. Most of the remaining plants are located in the south of Germany, while the ones previously located in the north and the Hamburg area have mostly closed down.
More broadly, Minis highlighted a number of overarching trends that grease manufacturers worldwide, not just those in Germany, must grapple with if they are to thrive.
Demands for CO2 reduction. This is probably the largest challenge for lubricating greases, Minis said, because it will affect cars, machines and grease manufacturing itself. Reducing CO2 goes hand-in-hand with longer-life components, he said. As users try to reduce their carbon footprint, theyll rethink their lubrication and maintenance practices, and more will adopt pregreased and sealed bearings – all of which cuts into demand volume, he added.
OEM technical requirements. These are becoming more complex and fast-paced, with equipment manufacturers now expecting lube suppliers to bring products to market in less time. We see an increased importance of rheology for grease performance, new materials to be lubricated, and new tribosystems to be lubricated.
Sustainability of raw materials. Customers now require us to have a second source of supply for all materials – which is not easy, I can tell you, interjected Minis. And even if they have multiple plants around the world that must be supplied, they expect local production of the same products, with approvals from the same OEMs. They want documentation of all this as well.
To meet these demands, grease manufacturers will have to hone their research capabilities and product performance, he said. Product performance demands are rising, even as component sizes are falling, which means the heat and loads put more stress on the grease, Minis said, citing several examples. Constant velocity joints on vehicle axles are getting smaller, so they have to withstand higher temperatures. And water contamination is a strong concern in applications like steel mills and wind turbines.
Heres another example, he continued. Germanys railway system, the Deutsche Bahn, wants to have one grease for the axle boxes on all its rail equipment, no matter what the service conditions – whether its a heavily loaded freight train or a high-speed passenger rail car.
Raw Material Questions
The worlds grease manufacturers especially face upheaval in some key raw materials, such as base oils, organics and inorganic chemicals. By 2015, the production of API Group I base oil will be only half of what it is today, so the grease industrys strong dependency on Group I will have to change, Minis flatly stated. Grease companies will have to learn to adopt Group II and III, and perhaps mixtures of these with naphthenics and synthetics, to achieve the same performance.
Since Group II and III base oils dont typically come in the weighty grades that grease manufacturers like to use, this shift will make it difficult to achieve viscosity ranges similar or equivalent to what grease buyers want, so intensive product development work will be needed, he added.
Another ingredient that merits careful thought is lithium, Minis went on. Lithium is overwhelmingly the worlds favorite grease type, but only 13 percent of lithium production goes into the grease market. Other applications are competing for the same material, especially lithium batteries, resulting in short supplies and high prices.
In the last 10 years, global lithium demand has doubled to 100,000 tons, but greases consumption of lithium has declined by 5 percent as worldwide grease markets have stagnated or declined, Minis said. That makes it even more challenging for grease manufacturers to negotiate for lithium volumes.
Electric car demand is not started yet, but if it begins that will reduce the availability of lithium for grease manufacturing. In fact, this may lead to greater adoption of alternatives such as calcium and calcium complex greases, calcium sulfonate complex greases, polyureas, aluminum complex greases or even some newer (or older, forgotten) thickener technologies.
A similar story is seen in molybdenum, which is often added to grease in the form of molybdenum disulfide to boost the extreme pressure or load-carrying properties. Such greases are often specified for roller bearings, open gears, CV joints and mining and construction equipment. However, a mere 1.5 percent of the worlds MoS2 goes into lubricating greases, while the steel, chemical and catalyst industries consume massive volumes. This leaves grease manufacturers with no bargaining power or way to guard against price shocks. Can you replace molybdenum with other materials, such as tungsten, or organic solids? pondered Minis.
Grease manufacturers also face volatility in sources of 12-hydroxy stearic acid, an important thickening agent which is mostly derived from castor oil, he went on. India grows 80 percent of the worlds castor beans and China most of the rest (although Brazil also has small volumes), and grease takes about 10 percent of global supply. So availability really depends on the castor bean harvest in India. Just one or two years of bad harvests can hurt availability and increase costs. Long-term, he suggested that the grease industry may need to seek independence from castor derivatives, perhaps by finding local vegetable and animal fats that can do the job.
Ironically, one enormous opportunity for lubricating greases could come from a technology that most lubricant manufacturers dread: electric cars. Greases for electric motor bearings will just be the start. With electric cars, the noise-reduction properties offered by grease will become more important, because in the absence of normal engine noises, all the other sounds in the vehicle will come into focus for the driver. So the comfort properties of the vehicles will be more important. This is where improved dampening greases and antifriction pastes will be needed.
Despite the challenges, grease is a high-tech product that delivers a lot of performance. While sales volumes will never approach those of liquid lubricants like motor oil, they do have a solid future, Minis said. As evidence, he pointed to all the places in a vehicle where grease is applied: in CV joints, steering columns, wheel bearings, pulleys, switches and electric motors, sunroofs, hydraulic dampers, brake calipers and more.
These applications wont disappear, even if conventional drivetrains do. Even after the last passenger car with engine oil and an internal combustion engine has left the roads, he concluded, grease will still be inside our vehicles.