Bio-Based Lubricants Who-is-Who in Biobased Lubricants? New Cooperations Grease the Bioeconomy

Author / Editor: Dr. Kathrin Rübberdt* / Dr. Jörg Kempf

Imagine you are a producer of lubricants, and you want to go biobased … The market is there, for sure, because many applications — from the chain saw in the forest to the wind power generator in the Wadden Sea — require biodegradable lubricants — a feature that can easily be achieved with biobased source materials.

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Conventional vs. biobased way to produce lubricants: The success of biobased products lies in identifying the partners and bringing them together.
Conventional vs. biobased way to produce lubricants: The success of biobased products lies in identifying the partners and bringing them together.
(Source: PROCESS/[M]GötzelHorn)

The market is there, for sure, because many applications — from the chain saw in the forest to the wind power generator in the Wadden Sea — require biodegradable lubricants — a feature that can easily be achieved with biobased source materials.

The technical requirements are no obstacle: German lubricant producer Fuchs Petrolub estimates that from a technical point of view, about 90 % of all lubricants could be replaced by biobased products. Apart from a lack of knowledge and some consumer mistrust to the “natural” alternatives, the higher prices — up to twice or three times that of mineral-oil based lubricants — present the main hurdle that keeps buyers from switching from fossil to bio.

On the other hand, the German “Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe” has calculated that the savings due to a longer operating life of biolubricants more than compensate the higher initial price.

Looking for New Suppliers

So now you have to go looking for new suppliers. Conventional base oils come either directly out of the petrochemical refinery or are chemically processed to obtain the desired properties such as a specific viscosity, low sulfur content or thermostability. The lubricant producer processes the base oil and formulates it with about 15 % up to 30 % of additives; these are often pre-formulated by additive suppliers that buy the ingredients from chemical companies.

A lubricant may contain up to 20 substances; the formulations are mostly proprietary information and well-guarded trade secrets. The formulators usually sell directly to distributors and end-users.

Until now, you have bought your base oil from one of the large petrochemical companies. Now, you have to look for companies that offer base oils made from rapeseed or palm oil.

One new-comer in the market is Biosynthetic Technologies. Its primary product line, sold under the name of Biosynthetic Base Oil, is comprised of biobased oils that are synthesized specifically for high performance lubricant applications in the automotive and industrial sectors. Currently available in a low and a high viscosity, the company claims that the biosynthetic oils can be blended into a variety of viscosities to meet most lubricant applications.

Hundreds of Bio-Based Lubricants

Another supplier is Renewable Lubricants that claims to sell over 250 products to the biobased lubricant market. Combining vegetable oils with proprietary additives, the applications range from racing engines to hydraulic requirements in extremely cold temperatures.

Elevance Renewable Sciences is co-owner of a world-scale biorefinery in Indonesia. Using metathesis, renewable natural oils are turned into high-value specialty difunctional molecules, olefins and oleochemicals with a capacity of 180 kMT. The chemicals are then processed both into base oils and additives for tailor-made biolubricants.

Speaking of Additives

If you want to sell biobased lubricants, you need biobased additives as well. Biobased lubricants usually require less additives than their petroleum-based cousins to improve the lubricating qualities. However, they are more prone to hydrolysis and oxidation, thus requiring more preservatives. Other required additives may include thickeners, antifoaming agents, tackifiers etc.

To maintain parameters such as biodegradability and environmental safety, the additives need to be free of toxic metals and phosphate. A whole industry is currently developing around biobased additives for biobased applications:

  • Fuchs Petrolub is a well-known and globally active lubricant producer who is constantly expanding its range of bio­lubricants. Together with 14 partners including protein-provider Animox, Fuchs is currently involved in a project called TeFuProt that aims to develop protein-based lubricant additives from biobased waste streams and residues. The raw material is provided by Bunge Deutschland that operates one of the biggest oil mills in Europe.
  • Another project consortium including Fuchs and biotechnology specialist Brain is already in the application testing phase for additives produced by enzymatic synthesis.
  • Solazyme Industrials offers a solid lubricant tailored to improve the performance of oils and greases at extreme conditions. Upon heat, friction or pressure, the lubricant releases liquid triglyceride oils that improve lubricity and reduce friction and wear.
  • Functional Products is based in Macedonia and sells biobased additives for biobased products all over the world, including polymers as thickeners, cold-flow improvers that expand the application temperature range of native oils such as canola down to as much as –30 °C, tackifiers that may be used in food processing equipment, and antioxidants.

By creating your new biobased lubricant, you will also have created a new biobased value net — including some established players such as the formulation specialists, but replacing especially the upstream steps with companies who have either a history in totally different fields such as oil mills or have been explicitly created to serve the biolubricants market.

* *K. Rübberdt, Head of Biotechnology, DECHEMA e.V.

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