SOY LUBRICANTS: HIGHER VISCOSITY, LOWER EVAPORATION LOSS AND GREAT POTENTIAL

Addressing Current Needs

The market for soybean oil in lubricants is driven by a combination of economics performance issues and environmental concerns. Petroleum or mineral-based oils have historically been, and will likely continue to be, the economical choice for many manufacturers to satisfy performance, logistic and cost targets in many applications. Understanding this, the United Soybean Board (USB) and soybean checkoff have invested in research of soy-based technology to complement petroleum products in significant segments of the lubricants market.

The need for readily high-performing and low-toxic lubricants in environmentally sensitive areas has been recognized, and growing regulatory pressure to reduce or eliminate certain emissions of petroleum lubricants should encourage increased incorporation of soy-based oils. Soy-based lubricants, such as all-purpose lubricants, crankcase oils, hydraulic fluids, bar and chain oils and others are beginning to capture a significant share of this emerging market segment.

Competing Products

Soybean oil will continue to compete with other vegetable oils and synthetic lubricants for a share of the emerging renewable lubricant market. Soy oil is price competitive and will be the product of choice as it meets customer performance requirements. When compared with mineral-oil-lubricant basestocks, soy lubricants have the following advantages: higher viscosity index, lower evaporation loss and a potential to enhance lubricity, which could lead to improved energy efficiency. Vegetable oils, including soy, do have performance limitations, particularly in thermal, oxidative and hydrolytic stability, but these problems can be alleviated through oil modification.

Soy-based lubricants are making great strides. Examples of soy lubricants success include Environmental Lubricants Manufacturing, Inc. hydraulic fluid’s use in elevators in the Statue of Liberty and other structures across the United States. Also, Terresolve Technologies use of cutting fluids and bar and chain oils in the U.S. National Park system. And one of the most recent lubricant successes has been Cooper Power System and Cargill’s joint efforts to develop and market Envirotemp FR3, a soy-based transformer fluid. The renewable transformer fluid is being used in electrical transformers throughout the Midwest and tests have shown the product has the potential to extend transformer power life three to four times that of petroleum-based mineral oils.

Modifying Soybean Oil

Four possible avenues for an improved soybean oil basestock are currently being investigated:

  • Biotechnology to produce more stable oil from seed.
  • Non-transgenic modification to produce more stable oil.
  • Modification of the oil through chemical or mechanical processing to improve oxidative stability, while maintaining good oil properties.
  • Chemical additives that improve stability offer the most rapid and cost-effective route to commercialization.

 

A combination of several of these areas offers the greatest opportunity for achieving significant levels of soybean oil in finished lubricant formulations. Coordinating the efforts of diverse groups is the challenge of commercialization.

Exploring Future Opportunities

Growing regulatory impacts on lubricants should create more use of biobased lubricants in the United States over the next five to 10 years. The soy oil industry will follow this effort, providing information on the availability and performance of soy-based lubricants. With an annual U.S. crop surpassing 3 billion bushels, the potential supply of soybean oil could exceed 31 billion pounds if the entire crop were crushed domestically. Few competing oilseeds have a current availability of this magnitude. If renewable oils are desired as lubricants, the availability of enhanced soy, coupled with its price advantage over other vegetable oils and synthetics, will make it a logical substitute for mineral oils in appropriate market segments.