In April, Redwood Innovation Partners Bhima Vijaydren wrote a review on the current status of bio-based motor oils and base oils for the journal Industrial Biotechnology. In it, Bhima explains how biobased lubricants show promise in augmenting the current petroleum-based supply of lubricating materials, as well as replacing it in many cases.

One study estimates that 50% of all lubricants sold globally end up in the environment via total loss application (such as chain saw oils, two stroke engines), spillage, and volatility. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that consumers dump more than 4 million barrels of oil every year when they dispose of used motor oil, an amount similar in magnitude to the spillage of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Biobased lubricants’ performance exceeds that of petro-derived lubricants in key measures. Some of the advantages of biobased base oils are higher inherent biodegradation rate (tested by ASTM D-5864), low toxicity to aquatic organisms, and very low level of bioaccumulation. The carbon footprint of biobased lubricants is also lower than petro-based incumbents. Estolide-based base oils have been estimated to create about 80% lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with petroleum-based poly alpha olefin (PAO) base oils, a product of similar function and use. Estolides are derivatives of fatty acids in which the tail of one fatty acid is bound covalently to the middle of another fatty acid hydrocarbon chain. Estolides are created by chemically connecting different unsaturated fatty acids.

Advances in conversion technology, development of formulations on par in performance with their petroleum-based counterparts, reliable supply chain and feedstock options, major corporate investment in production scale manufacturing facilities, cost parity, and the ability to meet USDA BioPreferred® certification all indicate that biobased motor oils are ready for large-scale commercial deployment.

A few companies demonstrate leadership in bringing specific products to market. Elevance uses patented olefin metathesis chemistry to create building block molecules from vegetable oils, which in turn undergo further reactions to ‘‘create novel molecular structure with controlled weight, branching, and architecture‘‘ of value in lubricant applications. Elevance is commercially producing these chemicals at its recently opened plant in Gresik, Indonesia. Other companies commercializing lubricants from biomass feedstocks include BioSynthetic Technologies and Environmental Lubricants Manufacturing.

It’s recognized that vegetable oils have several inherent advantages over petroleum-based ones, and many of the biobased lubricant technologies use vegetable oils as primary feedstocks. Monsanto (St. Louis, MO), through its Vistive Gold soybeans, and DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred (Johnston, IA) subsidiary, through its Plenish high oleic soybean, have made available high oleic oils, a very useful building block for developing high performance vegetable oil-based base oils.