Soy-Based Lubricants Market Holds Great Potential

November, 2005


The market for soybean oil in lubricants is driven by a combination of environmental concerns, economics and performance issues. Petroleum- or mineral-based oils have historically been, and will likely continue to be, the economical choice for many manufacturers to satisfy performance, logistic and cost targets in many applications. The United Soybean Board (USB) and soybean checkoff have invested in research of soy-based technology to complement petroleum products in significant segments of the lubricants market. The need for readily biodegradable and low-toxicity lubricants in environmentally sensitive areas has been recognized, and the combination of growing regulatory pressure to reduce or eliminate certain emissions of petroleum lubricants and Executive Order 13101, which instructs federal agencies to use environmentally preferable biobased products, should encourage increased use of renewable oils. Soybean-based lubricants have the potential to capture a significant share of this emerging market segment and remain a research priority of USB. Regardless, products containing biobased components must compete head-to-head with conventional products when the purchaser makes his or her decision.

Competing Products

Soybean oil will compete for a share of the emerging environmentally sensitive and renewable lubricant markets with other vegetable oils and with synthetic lubricants. Vegetable oils, including soy, are lower cost than synthetics and will be the product of choice when they meet customer performance requirements. When compared with mineral-oil-lubricant basestocks, vegetable oils have the following advantages: higher viscosity index, lower evaporation loss and a potential to enhance lubricity, which could lead to improved energy efficiency. Vegetable oils have performance limitations, particularly in thermal, oxidative and hydrolytic stability. These problems can be alleviated by modifying the oil. Developing a cost-effective commercially viable source of economical and stable basestock is the key to wider commercialization of soy-based lubricants.

Modifying Soybean Oil

Four possible avenues for an improved soybean oil basestock have been or are being investigated:

Biotechnology to produce more stable oil from the seed.

Non transgenic modification to produce more stable oil.

Modification of the oil through chemical or mechanical processing to improve oxidative stability, while maintaining good oil properties.

Chemical additives that improve stability offer the most rapid and cost-effective route to commercialization.

A combination of several of these areas offers the greatest opportunity for achieving significant levels of soybean oil in finished lubricant formulations. Coordinating the efforts of diverse groups is the challenge of commercialization.

Exploring Future Opportunities

Growing regulatory impacts on lubricants should result in more use of biobased lubricants in the United States during the next five to 10 years. The vegetable-oil industry should follow this effort, providing information on the availability and performance of renewable vegetable-based lubricants that can facilitate their use. With an annual U.S. crop approaching 3 billion bushels, the potential supply of soybean oil could surpass 31 billion pounds if the entire crop were crushed domestically. No other oilseed crop has a current availability of this magnitude. If renewable oils are desired as lubricants, the availability of enhanced soy, coupled with its price advantage over other vegetable oils and synthetics, will make it a logical substitute for mineral oils in appropriate market segments.

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