Can Lubricants be Green?

When properly manufactured and used, most lubricants can be considered environmentally considerate.
By John Sander | October 02, 2020

Today, many want to “go green” in various aspects of their lives, but what does this really mean? The answer to this question can vary from person to person, business to business, and even government to government. Common terms that have been used to define something as green include: renewable, recyclable, reusable, nontoxic or less toxic, energy conserving and waste reducing. An unlikely industry—lubrication—can be very green through responsibly planned purchasing, storage, use and disposal, challenging the limited regulatory view of green lubricants that fails to consider longer lubricant and component life and decreased energy use.

The lubricants industry is part of the much larger petroleum industry, which has developed a reputation as being a dirty industry. Some organizations in the exploration, production and transportation segments of the petroleum industry have contributed to that negative reputation and continue to face challenges, but the entire petroleum industry should not be found guilty by association. In fact, this industry has made possible many of the products that are responsible for the quality of life enjoyed by people around the world.

Contrary to popular belief, when properly used, most lubricants can be considered environmentally considerate. Lubricants reduce friction, resulting in a reduction of energy consumption and increased equipment life. A properly formulated lubricant lasts longer, therefore generating less waste. The end users, original equipment manufacturers and government agencies still expect this performance but are now also requesting low impact if the lubricant is released into the environment.

Lubricants today can be formulated using high-performance biobased materials and meet the more traditional definitions of environmentally friendly, such as being biodegradable, low toxicity and nonbioaccumulative.

Lubricant Formulation
Traditionally, when a lubricant was formulated, it contained a mixture of two main ingredients: oil and additives. For grease, a third ingredient was added—a thickener. In modern times, formulation still follows this basic mixture, but the options have expanded dramatically, as many types of natural and synthetic base fluids can be used as the base of a lubricant, not just petroleum oil. Additives are included to impart beneficial performance attributes, such as reduced friction (wear prevention), corrosion protection, heat removal (oxidation resistance), foam and air release, and water separation or emulsion, just to name a few.

There are four key areas that formulators must consider when formulating products: environmental, performance, physical and commercial. The primary lubricant attribute desired by most end users from is protection of assets from wear, increasing reliability and useful lifespan. For many regulators, the primary concern is that the lubricant be environmentally friendly. For these agencies, lubricating properties are secondary, if considered at all. But lubricants can be green in many ways that still consider performance, more in line with companies’ aims in pursuit of sustainability.

The traditional environmental lubricant has either been proven to be biodegradable or formulated from biobased materials. Yet, from a more holistic standpoint, lubricants have been environmentally friendly in another way for years. If the proper product is chosen for a given application, it can improve equipment efficiency. As compared to the lubricants even 50 years ago, today’s lubricants can be formulated to provide a much higher level of equipment protection and performance. If the sustainability model of green is considered, they can be more environmentally friendly, provide better performance and improve the economic bottom line.

Ways Lubricants Can be Green
Crude oil has long been thought of as a nonrenewable natural resource. Petroleum oil took millions of years to form in the ground. Renewable products grow, are harvested and turned into products within a relatively short time. Most oils taken directly from animal and vegetable sources do not yield stable lubricants. It is this instability that makes them highly biodegradable, an environmental advantage.

Much research has been conducted on renewable oils since the late 1980s through genetic modifications and chemical processing, and some of their insufficiencies are being overcome. Unfortunately, this usually results in base fluids that that can be more expensive than mineral oils.

Early environmentally acceptable lubricants were made from biobased materials or were biodegradable, most formulated using vegetable oil-based fluids. Concessions often had to be made by the users when putting these products into service. They typically became jelly-like at low temperatures and oxidized rapidly at operating temperatures. They were also more expensive. This meant that for a user to employ green lubricants, they had to pay more for a product that didn’t perform as well. There were not many laws in place forcing users to buy them, so only hardcore environmentalists used them. Governments are beginning to put more emphasis on environmentally acceptable lubricants (EALs) by enacting laws making it more difficult for companies to avoid using them. Fortunately, many options are available today through genetically improved vegetable oils or high-performance synthetic fluids, so that higher performing products can be formulated to overcome the low- and high-temperature concerns of the early products. Along with biodegradability, toxicology has become part of the requirement for a lubricant to be green, meaning that formulators now must also consider ecotoxicity and bioaccumulation.

Any effort to reuse or recycle lubricants is green. Some lubricant packaging, such as steel drums and bulk transfer tanks, can be emptied, sent back, refurbished and refilled with new lubricants or other chemicals. Most lubricants, however, cannot be reused because of degradation and contamination, though some end users have tried with limited success. For example, used lubricants are sometimes applied to moving chains. This is not considered a best lubrication practice, but success varies depending upon condition of the used lubricant. Another reuse for lubricants is that they are collected and burned as heating fuel oil. The fuel is needed as an energy source, so this approach is greener than dumping into a landfill or pouring into the environment.

An entire new segment of the lubricants industry exists called re-refiners. In the infancy of re-refining, waste oil collectors took spent lubricant back to their facility, removed the water, filtered out the solids, and resold it for various lubrication uses. Modern re-refiners do the same, but then, unlike their predecessors, they introduce it into a refinery process just like crude oil. After processing, new high-quality base oils are produced that have been found to be of equal or better quality to virgin base oils. These can be used to produce new lubricants, restarting the closed-loop process.

Another way to be green is reducing the amount of natural resources used for production. There are various ways this can be achieved when using lubricants. One of the main purposes of lubricants is to reduce friction; a lower coefficient of friction increases efficiency and consumes less power. Power consumption can be measured in several ways, including fuel economy, electrical consumption or productivity (units per hour or similar). These efforts can be converted into monetary figures, creating economic benefits in addition to the environmental benefits of using fewer resources. Occasionally, the money saved is more than the amount that may have been spent on a more expensive lubricant or a lubricant that needed to be changed more frequently.

Through proper base fluid and additive selection, it is possible to formulate lubricant products that operate for extended periods of time under proper maintenance without needing to be changed. The result, in this case, is less lubricant purchased, less used lubricant disposed, less maintenance labor, and ultimately, less financial resources spent.

Ultimately, a successful green lubricant program is the responsibility of the end user. A world class lubrication reliability program improves equipment reliability and uptime with the fringe benefit of creating a holistic green lubricant program. Numerous case studies have shown that when lubrication reliability programs are implemented, companies reduce costs and improve their profitability, thus becoming more sustainable economically as well as environmentally.

Implementing a lubrication reliability program is a daunting task. To help with this journey, companies should choose a lubricant supplier that can be a partner, not just a supplier. In the end, successful implementation will result in improved environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Author: John Sander
Vice President of Technology, Lubrication Engineers