Briefings

Lube Industry Must Find New Carbon Feedstock
Silhouettes of workers in the mine. © iurii

Lube Industry Must Find New Carbon Feedstock

By Simon Johns - Jun 17, 2021

Switching to renewable from extracted carbon is a key condition for the lubricants industry to become carbon neutral, according to Nova Institute, a German renewable carbon research organization.

Lubricants, as well as a host of other products including plastics, detergents, textile fibers and rubber, contain embedded carbon in the form of organic compounds.

A new report published by the institute found that demand for this embedded carbon is about 450 million metric tons per year, of which 85% is from extracted hydrocarbons and the remaining 15% from renewable sources, such as biomass and recovered carbon. This is the first time such a calculation of embedded carbon has been made, since previous studies have focused on the use of fossil-derived resources for energy and fuel use.

“Most lubricants are made from fossil carbon, which will be unaccepted to clients in future,” Michael Carus, the founder and CEO of Nova Institute, old Sustainability InSite. “While lubricants can also be produced from biomass, CO2 or chemical recycling, their biggest CO2 footprint is from embedded fossil carbon.”

The institute predicts that as populations and incomes grow, demand will increase to 1 billion tons per year by 2050 – the European Union’s target year for carbon neutrality. In order to satisfy demand from chemicals and materials makers, renewable carbon production has to increase by a factor of 15 by the same year, the report says.

To create long-lasting and sustainable change, industries such as lubricants must substitute extracted carbon with carbon from biomass, recycled and captured carbon from industrial processes or the atmosphere.

“The chemical world is dramatically changing – huge pressure from NGOs, climate protection groups, policy and society – but also because the demand side is changing. The demand for fuels is decreasing, which [has] a lot of impacts on the supply chain,” said Carus.

Today, 11% of fossil resources are used for cement, chemicals and other derived materials. This share will increase by as demand from a larger global population and from decarbonization of the energy sector, explained Ferdinand Kähler, a scientist in the sustainability team at Nova Institute. 

The new calculation can be the starting point for discussion about the future of the chemical and derived material industries, Kähler said.

“Many questions arise, like which is the best source of renewable – not-fossil – carbon? How can biomass contribute across sectors? Which innovations will be required,” he said. “But this highly depends on the region of production, the production process, the desired properties of the product and many more.”

The shift toward renewable carbon use is not without its critics, however. Carus pointed out that with every major transformation, some aspects of the shift toward renewable carbon are debated.

“The role of recycling is only one aspect. There are some NGOs criticizing chemical recycling not being suitable to solve the issue of plastic recycling. [Whereas] other voices … recognize its potential,” he said.

Some are worried that bio-based chemicals and materials may compromise biodiversity or food security. Research by the U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory environmental sciences division highlights competition for arable land required for food production, soil disturbance, nutrient depletion, impaired water quality, potential environmental effects from biomass feedstock production and utilization of agricultural and forest residues for energy.

Carus said agricultural side streams like wheat straw can be used as feedstock for materials, thus not encroaching on food production. This stands in contrast to the controversial use of palm oil, which rapidly fell out of favor after being touted as a substitute feedstock for fuel production.