Base oils

Lost in friction – how drop-in solutions could be a breakthrough in establishing more sustainable lubrication

Mika Kettunen
Technical Product Manager, Base Oils

The base oil industry has huge potential to do more for sustainability. More cooperation across the value chain is clearly needed since renewable solutions for lubrication have already existed for years. I strongly believe drop-in solutions can accelerate the transition to renewable-based lubricants.


This spring, I had the privilege of participating in the 2021 Asian Lubricant Industry Association (ALIA) Virtual Meeting. In this interactive online gathering we discussed how the lubricants industry and tribology are well positioned to contribute to society’s sustainability goals through durability extension, resource conservation, reducing friction and energy efficiency – and hence reduced emissions – to name a few ways. (You can watch the keynote and panel discussion highlights here.) As lubricants are used in an enormous scope of applications and their carbon handprint is potentially larger than their footprint (as noted in my previous blog post), their sustainability potential is equally enormous.

The enormous sustainability impact of reducing friction

Lubricant benefits have traditionally been measured in cost savings from fuel consumption and maintenance. But nowadays, beyond greenhouse gas reductions, the circular economy and material consumption are considered critical lubricant impacts, as was clear from the panel discussion. In his panel keynote, Dr. Mathias Woydt pointed out that cutting friction losses by 30% would contribute to resource and emission reductions and increase machine lifetime to yield a possible 15-26% reduction of the 37.9 gigatons of CO2 emitted globally in 2019 in the medium to long term. To offer some perspective on this potential 6-10 gigatons in CO2 savings, the US emitted roughly 5.4 gigatons of CO2 in 2018.
While this research is ongoing, it clearly shows the lubricants industry can contribute to sustainable development by reducing emissions through increasing performance.

Renewable solutions for lubrication exist, but how can their adoption be accelerated?

The building blocks for more sustainable base oils exist, but they remain rarely used. Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants (EAL), which are biodegradable and less toxic, first appeared in the early 1990s. They have mostly been made for applications with increased risk of leaking in the environment, such as forestry machinery. But after 30 years, their market penetration remains low across a wider application base. Ester-based base oils can be more expensive and, due to their different chemical polarity, are not optimal in for example engine oil use.
The use of renewable lubricants has not spread through solutions that need modifications in lubricated systems, but require drop-in solutions that work with existing lubricant applications. This could accelerate adoption and widen the scope of opportunities, thus accelerating the use of base oils made of renewable feedstocks. To be adopted broadly and enable fast business scale-up, more sustainable drop-in hydrocarbon-based base oils cannot compromise on technical performance. Instead, they need properties matching or exceeding current solutions. Replacing fossil-based base oils also contributes to the emission reduction possibilities of the lubricants industry.

Drop-in solutions can further accelerate the move to better quality lubricants

Increasing fuel economy requirements have pushed car manufacturers to continuously define new lubricant specifications and performance requirements, which have led to base oils becoming thinner while still needing to protect and perform in hotter conditions. With the transition to Group 3 base oils and beyond, these superior lubricants now last longer, offer lower friction, better protect machines from wear and increase equipment life. This means less energy and material are needed to build new machines. This transition to better performing lubricants – together with the possibilities for future growth and emissions cuts – makes drop-in solutions an appealing approach to accelerating adoption of sustainable, renewable-based lubricants.
We at Neste are developing true drop-in solutions based on renewable hydrocarbons. The new solutions should be more sustainable and of higher quality. Critically, they need to be suitable for existing and future applications. This will be economically smart not only for the marketers of more sustainable lubricant solutions but also from the perspectives of lubricant approval programs and brand owners.

Opportunities with renewable-based lubricants

For the industry to see the wider possibilities of renewable-based lubricants, co-operation is needed throughout the product supply chain and lifecycle. More transparency is required in comparing the performance of solutions and determining the full benefits of renewable-based lubricants. Industry-wide co-operation in setting common tools, standards, practices and KPIs also plays a crucial role in promoting and commercializing the impact of sustainable solutions.
Easily adopted, emission-saving and performance-increasing sustainable base stocks already exist. What is stopping the lubricants industry from grasping the possibilities sustainable lubricants offer and taking a hugely impactful step in reducing emissions?

Written by
Mika Kettunen
Technical Product Manager, Base Oils

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