What are Biodegradable Lubricants?

As the world’s petroleum reserves are extracted, scarcity increases, thus driving oil and lubricant prices higher. This economic burden will force end-users and manufacturers to develop alternatives that are cost effective, readily available, and sustainable. The answer to these concerns are biodegradable lubricants.

Biodegradable Lubricants Defined

Biodegradable lubricants have the ability to degrade naturally by the actions of biological organisms. Petroleum is naturally occurring and is considered inherently biodegradable. However, that does not mean they can be marketed, sold, and treated as biodegradable. When we refer to biodegradable lubricants, we are discussing lubricants that are readily biodegradable.

Determining Biodegradability

Biodegradable lubricants must meet the ISO 9439 or OECD 301B standards. These standards state that a lubricant that has degraded by more than 60% within 28 days is readily biodegradable. The tests involve treating a lubricant sample with microorganisms in the presence of oxygen and measuring the CO2 produced by the microorganisms. As mentioned before, petroleum-based lubricants are inherently biodegradable, but not readily biodegradable because they fail to meet these standards. Petroleum-based lubricants naturally degrade at a rate of 15-35% in 28 days, falling short of the required 60%.

Additionally, the lubricant must be of “low toxicity.” There are a variety of tests used to determine toxicity. These tests involve fish, daphnia, and other organisms. In their pure form, mineral oil and vegetable oil show little toxicity, but lubricants are not just pure oil. As additives are incorporated into formulations, the toxicity increases. Additives are added to make up for any performance shortcomings of biodegradable base stocks.

Types of Biodegradable Base Stocks

Most biodegradable lubricants use vegetable oil, synthetic esters, polyalkylene glycols (PAGs), or a combination of these as base stocks. Vegetable oils have been used for years when petroleum was in short supply. They were popular during World War I and World War II due to oil rationing and came back in popularity during oil embargo in the 1970s. Vegetable oils declined in popularity due to the availability of low-cost oil after Desert Storm. Their popularity is beginning to rise as more manufacturers and end-users are faced with climate change and sustainability concerns. Some common vegetable oils used are soybean oil, cottonseed oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil. To improve performance, farmers are beginning to grow genetically modified crops that are designed and engineered for use in lubricants.

Synthetic base stocks, such as esters and PAGs, are also used to boost performance when vegetable oils cannot get the job done. PAGs are effective, however they have a few issues that should be considered. PAGs are incompatible with other oils and can cause problems if inadvertently mixed with non-PAG oils. PAGs can also react poorly with seals and paints. This is why synthetic esters are preferred for biodegradable lubricants. Synthetic esters are typically added to vegetable-oil based lubricants to improve low temperature properties. These serve better than light mineral oils as synthetic esters are less toxic and more biodegradable.

Biodegradable Lubricant Products

Many applications and machines now can be lubricated with biodegradable lubricants and meet all performance requirements. Products that can be composed of soybean oils include:

  • Food grade hydraulic fluids and greases
  • Automotive, railroad, and machine greases
  • Tractor transmission and industrial hydraulic fluids
  • Chainsaw bar oils
  • Gear lubricants
  • Compressor oils
  • Transmission and transformer line cooling fluids

Many more products are in development and could become viable in lubricant markets soon. These include:

  • Two-cycle engine oils
  • Metalworking fluids
  • Specialty lubricants

With more resources and demand for biodegradable lubricants, engineers and manufacturers can research and develop more products that perform more applications, perform better than mineral oils, and remain price competitive.

Biodegradable lubricants are highly popular in applications and industries where environmental and safety concerns are high. Marine and agricultural industries need these lubricants as contamination could have devastating effects. According to Total Lubricants, a single liter of oil can pollute as much as 1,000,000 liters of water. In those applications, biodegradable lubricants are essential. Some government regulations ensure that these industries use biodegradable lubricants that do not harm consumers and operators in the event of leakage.

Twin Specialties Offers Biodegradable Lubricants

No matter your application or environmental requirements, Twin Specialties can meet your manufacturing, marine, or agricultural needs. We offer a variety of lubricants including: Shell Naturelle, Castrol Performance Bio, and various Food Grade lubricants. Contact Twin Specialties for a quote.

Case Study: Recreational and Commercial Marine Components

Products: Twin Industrial Cleaner 2458-B and Twin Soluble Rust Preventative 110

Product Types: Liquid Alkaline Cleaner and Water Soluble Rust Preventative

Customer: Manufacturer of Recreational and Commercial Marine Components

The Problem: The customer manufactures parts for recreational and commercial boats, but was starting to encounter rust on some of their parts after running them through a cleaning tank. Specifically, the rust was appearing on a ductile iron piece, which is difficult to prevent as iron is a very porous metal and absorbs moisture easily. The cleaner and rinse solution the customer was using did not effectively prevent rust and left spots on the parts after cleaning.

The cleaning tank was running at 180⁰ F and a concentration of approximately 1.5%, this was both too hot and too weak for an effective cleaning process. The higher temperature resulted in “flash drying” which leads to more rust than regular drying. This occurred in between the cleaning cycle and the rinse cycle. The higher temperatures and weak solutions caused greater evaporation and rusting.

The Solution: After evaluating their cleaning process, Twin Specialties determined that adjustments were needed for the cleaning process, cleaner, and rinse solution. In the cleaning process, the first issue to address with the temperatures for the cleaning and rinse cycles. The cycles ran at 180⁰F and 100⁰F, respectively. After consulting the manufacturer and technical data sheets, we determined the proper temperatures for the cleaning and rinse cycles should be 140⁰ F and 75⁰ F, respectively. This reduced evaporation of the cleaner and rust preventative and alleviated the “flash drying” issue.

Secondly, we increased the concentration of both the cleaner and rust preventative. Originally, both were running around 1-2%. Based on the manufacturers recommendations and previous results, we determined that running both the cleaning and rinsing solutions at 3% will improve performance of both chemicals. This allowed for a thorough cleaning and application of the rust preventative.

Finally, we set up the system with our high-performance products. For the cleaning cycle, the customer is using the Twin Industrial Cleaner 2458-B. This is a heavy-duty liquid alkaline cleaner that has some of the Twin Soluble Rust Preventative 110 included in the product’s chemistry. For this specific application, this helps fight the “flash drying” that occurs in between the cleaning and rinse cycles. In the rinse cycle, the customer is using the Twin Soluble Rust Preventative 110 as an additive to the rinse solution. This synthetic product is non-foaming and provides a dry film for short term rust protection in typical indoor storage conditions.

Using this formula for cleaning operations, the customer eliminated rust from parts and reduced service needed on its products. Coupling this with Twin Industrial Cleaner 2458-B and the Twin Soluble Rust Preventative 110, the customer is able to fulfill its orders and deliver pristine parts to its customers. The lower temperatures also reduced energy consumption and produced further cost savings.