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The Realities Of Synthetic Lubricants

There is nothing "fake" about synthetic lubricants; they are created from natural materials as a cost-effective, more efficient substitute for mineral-based products. And the synthetic lubricant industry is not new either; its roots can be traced back to the World War II years, even earlier, when synthetics were devel

There is nothing "fake" about synthetic lubricants; they are created from natural materials as a cost-effective, more efficient substitute for mineral-based products. And the synthetic lubricant industry is not new either; its roots can be traced back to the World War II years, even earlier, when synthetics were developed as an answer to the shortcomings of mineral-based oil products. Demand for synthetic type products further accelerated with the inception of jet turbine technology in the post World War II era. 
In the modern world, synthetic lubricants are being extensively used in applications where superior lubrication performance is required. These lubricants are characterized by a wide operating temperature range, versatility and excellent physical characteristics making them a good choice for applications such as precision instrumentation, ordnance, heavy industry, public utilities among many others. Some of the key benefits synthetic lubricants offer machine manufacturers are enhanced equipment performance, extended equipment and oil life, reduced maintenance costs and increased energy efficiency.

Synthetic lubricants generally outperform mineral oil-based lubricant because the latter’s performance characteristics cannot provide adequate protection over the life of the equipment. Engineers for equipment manufacturing companies are being asked to design innovative machines that differentiate their companies from the competition and offer industry the ability to do more with less in a smaller footprint. This has caused sump capacities to decrease and, as a consequence, put increased thermal-oxidative stresses on factory-fill lubricants. In addition, other factors such as environmental legislation, economic growth, and aftermarket demand have caused OEMs to offer synthetic lubricants to penetrate niche markets where mineral oil-based or ‘commodity-type’ lubricants cannot compete.  

The synthetic recipe

According to Darren Lesinski, technical service manager at ANDEROL, a manufacturer of high-performance specialty synthetic lubricants, “The difference between mineral-based and synthetic lubricants really comes down to chemistry. Today’s synthetic base-stock can be tailor-made to address physical property requirements in virtually every application.”

Lubricant in the gear box.

The most popular ‘families’ of synthetic basestocks used in the industry today-- esters, poly-alpha-olefins (PAOs), and polyalkyleneglycols (PAGs) are derived or synthesized from some component of oil and gas production or refinery process. For instance, natural gas is the chemical building block that produces PAOs and PAGs, and alcohols produced from the refinement process are one of the starting components for the synthesis of esters.

Efficient all-year-round

Surprisingly, the petroleum industry is a user of synthetic lubricants, also.
Anderol just returned from exhibiting at the Global Petroleum Show, for oil and gas processors, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

"Here is the irony of the entire situation," Lesinski said. "Especially in Alberta, the environment is very erratic. It goes down to minus 50 degrees F to minus 60 degrees F in the winter and over 100 degrees F in the summer. This is a very demanding environment for a lubricant to function regardless of the application."

But synthetic lubricants allow oil and gas equipment to operate efficiently in low-temperatures and survive the very high temperatures. Because mineral-based products contain paraffin wax, their pour point properties fall short of the application’s requirement whereas most synthetic lubricants will function in minus 50 degree F to minus 60 degree F temperatures.

Anderol’s PumpJack 150 in the winter.

For the oil and gas industry, the high-performance characteristics of synthetic lubricants offer many other benefits. "Since the synthesis process for synthetic basestocks can be controlled and altered, we can fine-tune the chemistry in order to provide the best properties to match the application. This fine-tuning process is advanced with the selection of additives that optimize important physical properties such as wear, corrosion inhibition, thermal-oxidative stability, and others,” said Lesinski. “Synthetics provide you with a larger and stronger safety net.”  

The energy efficiency of synthetics is another area of advantage for any application, including oil and gas equipment. "Synthetics, especially ester-containing or PAG-based lubricants, usually provide 2% to 7% improved energy efficiency over mineral oils in rotating equipment applications," explains Lesinski.   The reason for the superior energy efficiency with synthetics is the inherent polarity of the PAG and ester molecules.

Esters and glycol-based products also offer superior environmental properties or biodegradability over mineral oil-based products.

Cost and global use

Cost difference, though, between the two types of lubricants is still one hurdle that must be overcome when considering the use of synthetics. Synthetic lubricants might cost more, but the synthetic lubricant and the equipment it's used in last longer.

Lesinski believes the concept of the use of synthetics still boils down to customer education.  “People usually buy-in once they see the side-by-side performance attributes and calculated pay-out, in regard to frequency of oil changes, and associated parts costs and labor costs,” said Lesinski.

The acceptance of synthetics is very strong in Europe and rapidly gaining popularity in North America.   Asian markets are also seeing a turn toward synthetics.   “We feel that once the industrialized Asian, and more specifically, Chinese market reaches maturity, the future for synthetics is very bright,” stated Lesinski.
“It’s also important to build awareness of the cost benefits companies can realize with the use of synthetic lubricants in cost-conscious markets like China,” said Wayne Sawyer, brands manager, Anderol. “Sure, there is a premium price to be paid for synthetics, but as evidence going back to the 40s proves-- your equipment lasts longer resulting in huge financial savings.”

"Domestic manufacturers understand labor cost savings better than their counterparts in less developed countries where the cost of labor is much lower," said Sawyer. "Rather than having a piece of equipment serviced once a week, the intervals can generally be extended significantly with the use of synthetic lubricants.”

“Still, even with the premium price, industry trends show that there is a growing use and acceptance of synthetic lubricants in place of petroleum-based oils and greases, especially when you realize that you're going to use less synthetic and that it lasts a longer time," Lesinski said.