Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

One Slick Trick: Building a Better Biolubricant

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

One Slick Trick: Building a Better Biolubricant

Article excerpt

Pollution from petroleum invades all corners of the environment. Sometimes it comes in floods: tanker ships run aground, pipelines breach, oil rigs catch on fire. But more often it comes in dribbles and spurts, as droplets of oil expelled from the tailpipes of lawn mowers and watercraft, as traces of grease washed free from hydroelectric dams or flung from lubricated train tracks, as gallons of oil trickling from cracked electrical transformers, or as fluid spurting from ruptured hydraulic lines. In 2000, the most recent year for which there are figures, about 2.5 billion gallons of petroleum-based lubricants were sold in the United States alone, according to the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, based in Washington, D.C. Of that 2.5 billion gallons, several studies have shown that 30-40% escapes into the environment through such routes as spills, leaks, and evaporation.

Until the turn of the last century, animal fats and plant oils were the sources for virtually all lubricants. According to Joseph Perez, a chemical engineer and senior research scientist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, vegetable oils actually lubricate better than petroleum products--they are naturally more slippery, and they also are more polar, meaning they cling better to metal parts. But the mid-1800s brought the discovery of ways to drill for oil that made petroleum lubricants readily available, and in the 1890s mass production of automobiles began, creating an ever-growing demand for petroleum products. The result was a rapidly expanding infrastructure for extracting crude oil and a drive to create petroleum-based lubricants as well. Petroleum products--which have become cheaper to produce and sell than vegetable oils, and which oxidize less readily--have dominated the market ever since.

The last decade, however, has seen the rise of a new class of lubricants made from renewable resources, and that are less environmentally hazardous and safer for human contact than petroleum-based fluids. These new oils, greases, and industrial fluids are derived from common plant products such as soybeans, sunflower seeds, and canola (or, in Europe, its close relative rapeseed). And in a new twist on an old idea, updated technologies are allowing scientists to develop biobased lubricants that are more stable than their predecessors. The United States lags about 10 years behind Scandinavia and Germany in work on biolubricants, but U.S. companies--some large and established, others small startups--are entering the field with a wide assortment of products that have appeared in applications ranging from the elevators in the Statue of Liberty to Canadian hydroelectric dams to pole-mounted transformers in northern California.

The Good, the Bad, and the Oily

According to Lou Honary, director of the Agriculture-Based Industrial Lubricants (ABIL) research group at the University of Northern Iowa in Waverly (by most accounts the epicenter of U.S. biolubricant research), the U.S. Department of Agriculture has coined the term "biobased" to refer to a product that has a minimum of 51% biomaterial, and is planning to label selected products as "biobased" for use by federal purchasers. There are several executive orders that pertain to biobased lubricants. Perhaps most important is Executive Order 13134 and its accompanying executive memorandum, which in 1999 called for the tripling of the federal government's use of biobased products by 2010. Another important piece of legislation is the Farm Bill that President George W. Bush signed on 13 May 2002, which includes provisions meant to increase the amount of biobased materials that federal agencies purchase. The law also provides $1 million per year for five years for the testing of biobased products.

For many of the emerging markets for biobased lubricants, the appeal is that the products are kinder to the environment than their petroleum-based counterparts. …

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