|Motor oil, or engine oil, is an oil used for lubrication of various internal combustion engines. While the main function is to lubricate moving parts, motor oil also cleans, inhibits corrosion, improves sealing and cools the engine by carrying heat away from the moving parts. Motor oils are derived from petroleum and non-petroleum synthesized chemical compounds used to make synthetic oil. Motor oils are today mainly blended by using base oils composed of hydrocarbons (mineral, polyalphaolefins (PAO), polyinternal ofefins (PIO), thus organic compounds consisting entirely of carbon and hydrogen. The base oils of some high-performance motor oils contain up to 20 wt.-% of esters .
Motor oil is a lubricant used in internal combustion engines. These include motor or road vehicles such as cars and motorcycles, heavier vehicles such as buses and commercial vehicles, non-road vehicles such as go-karts, snowmobiles, boats (fixed engine installations and outboards), lawn mowers, large agricultural and construction equipment, trains and aircraft, and static engines such as electrical generators. In engines, there are parts which move very closely against each other causing friction which wastes otherwise useful power by converting the energy to heat. Contact between moving surfaces also wears away those parts, which could lead to lower efficiency and degradation of the motor. This increases fuel consumption and decreases power output and can, in extreme cases, lead to total engine failure.
Lubricating oil creates a separating film between surfaces of adjacent moving parts to minimize direct contact between them, decreasing heat caused by friction and reducing wear, thus protecting the engine. In use, motor oil transfers heat through convection as it flows through the engine by means of air flow over the surface of the oil pan, an oil cooler and through the build up of oil gases evacuated by the Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) system.
In petrol (gasoline) engines, the top piston ring can expose the motor oil to temperatures of 320 °F (160 °C). In diesel engines the top ring can expose the oil to temperatures over 600 °F (315 °C). Motor oils with higher viscosity indices thin less at these higher temperatures.
Coating metal parts with oil also keeps them from being exposed to oxygen, inhibiting oxidation at elevated operating temperatures preventing rust or corrosion. Corrosion inhibitors may also be added to the motor oil. Many motor oils also have detergents and dispersants added to help keep the engine clean and minimize oil sludge build-up.
Rubbing of metal engine parts inevitably produces some microscopic metallic particles from the wearing of the surfaces. Such particles could circulate in the oil and grind against the moving parts, causing erosion and wear. Because particles inevitably build up in the oil, it is typically circulated through an oil filter to remove harmful particles. An oil pump, a vane or gear pump powered by the vehicle engine, pumps the oil throughout the engine, including the oil filter. Oil filters can be a full flow or bypass type.
In the crankcase of a vehicle engine, motor oil lubricates rotating or sliding surfaces between the crankshaft journal bearings (main bearings and big-end bearings), and rods connecting the pistons to the crankshaft. The oil collects in an oil pan, or sump, at the bottom of the crankcase. In some small engines such as lawn mower engines, dippers on the bottoms of connecting rods dip into the oil at the bottom and splash it around the crankcase as needed to lubricate parts inside. In modern vehicle engines, the oil pump takes oil from the oil pan and sends it through the oil filter into oil galleries, from which the oil lubricates the main bearings holding the crankshaft up at the main journals and camshaft bearings operating the valves. In typical modern vehicles, oil pressure-fed from the oil galleries to the main bearings enters holes in the main journals of the crankshaft. From these holes in the main journals, the oil moves through passageways inside the crankshaft to exit holes in the rod journals to lubricate the rod bearings and connecting rods. Some simpler designs relied on these rapidly moving parts to splash and lubricate the contacting surfaces between the piston rings and interior surfaces of the cylinders. However, in modern designs, there are also passageways through the rods which carry oil from the rod bearings to the rod-piston connections and lubricate the contacting surfaces between the piston rings and interior surfaces of the cylinders. This oil film also serves as a seal between the piston rings and cylinder walls to separate the combustion chamber in the cylinder head from the crankcase. The oil then drips back down into the oil pan.
While it may still be used in motor vehicles, ATF or Automatic Transmission Fluid is a separate type of specialized lubricating fluid. Varying specifications of ATF are used in automatic gearboxes and some power steering systems, and should not be used to lubricate the engine. It is typically colored dark red to distinguish it from the motor oil and other fluids in the vehicle. Other non-motor oils include gear or transmission, and differentials oils. These are used in manual gearboxes and driven axles. They could include specialty uses including EP (Extreme Pressure), hypoid, and limited slip functions. Again, they are not to be used for engine lubrication.
Other kinds of motors also use motor oil, as well as engines that are not in vehicles such as those for electrical generators. Examples include 4-stroke or 4-cycle internal combustion engines such as those used in many “walk behind” lawn mowers and other engines, and special 2-stroke oil used in 2-stroke or 2-cycle internal combustion engines such as those used in various smaller engines like mopeds, snow throwers (blowers), chain saws, toy engines like those in model airplanes, certain gardening equipment like weed/grass trimmers, leaf blowers, soil cultivators, etc. Often, the applications are not exposed to as wide a temperature range in use as vehicles, so these oils may be single grade or have less viscosity index improver. 2-cycle oil is used differently from other motor oils in that it is pre-mixed with the gasoline or fuel, often in a gasoline:oil ratio of 25:1, 40:1 or 50:1 up to 100:1, and burned in use along with the gasoline. Some 2-stroke engines used in cars, such as the Saab two-stroke engine, had an oil injection system rather than oil pre-mixed.
In addition to the 2-cycle oil used if they have gasoline engines, chain saws also separately use “bar and chain oil” for lubricating and cooling the surfaces where the cutting chain moves around the bar.
Other examples of mechanical equipment often using oil include oil-driven compressors, vacuum pumps, diffusion pumps, sewing machines and other devices with motors, oil-driven hydraulic equipment, and turbines.
The oil properties will vary according to the individual needs of these devices. Non-smoking 2-cycle oils are composed of esters or polyglycols. Environmental legislations for leisure marine applications, especially in Europe, enhanced the use of ester-based two cycle oils.
Most motor oils are made from a heavier, thicker petroleum hydrocarbon base stock derived from crude oil, with additives to improve certain properties. The bulk of a typical motor oil consists of hydrocarbons with between 18 and 34 carbon atoms per molecule. One of the most important properties of motor oil in maintaining a lubricating film between moving parts is its viscosity. The viscosity of a liquid can be thought of as its “thickness” or a quantity of resistance to flow. The viscosity must be high enough to maintain a satisfactory lubricating film, but low enough that the oil can flow around the engine parts satisfactorily to keep them well coated under all conditions. The viscosity index is a measure of how much the oil’s viscosity changes as temperature changes. A higher viscosity index indicates the viscosity changes less with temperature than a lower viscosity index.
Motor oil must be able to flow adequately at the lowest temperature it is expected to experience in order to minimize metal to metal contact between moving parts upon starting up the engine. The pour point defined first this property of motor oil, as defined by ASTM D97 as “…an index of the lowest temperature of its utility…” for a given application, but the “cold cranking similator” (CCS, see ASTM D5293-08) and “Mini-Rotary Viscometer” (MRV, see ASTM D3829-02(2007), ASTM D4684-08) are today the properties required in motor oil specs and define the SAE classifications.
Oil is largely composed of hydrocarbons which can burn if ignited. Still another important property of motor oil is its flash point, the lowest temperature at which the oil gives off vapors which can ignite. It is dangerous for the oil in a motor to ignite and burn, so a high flash point is desirable. At a petroleum refinery, fractional distillation separates a motor oil fraction from other crude oil fractions, removing the more volatile components, and therefore increasing the oil’s flash point.
Another manipulated property of motor oil is its Total Base Number (TBN), which is a measurement of the reserve alkalinity of an oil, meaning its ability to neutralize acids. The resulting quantity is determined as mg KOH/ (gram of lubricant). Analogously, Total Acid Number (TAN) is the measure of a lubricant’s acidity. Other tests include zinc, phosphorus, or sulfur content, and testing for excessive foaming.
The NOACK volatility (ASTM D-5800) Test determines the physical evaporation loss of lubricants in high temperature service. A maximum of 15% evaporation loss is allowable to meet API SL and ILSAC GF-3 specifications. Some automotive OEM oil spec require lower than 10%.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has established a numerical code system for grading motor oils according to their viscosity characteristics. SAE viscosity gradings include the following: 0, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50 or 60. The numbers 0, 5, 10, 15 and 25 are suffixed with the letter W, designating their “winter” (not “weight”) or cold-start viscosity, at lower temperature. The number 20 comes with or without a W, depending on whether it is being used to denote a cold or hot viscosity grade. The document SAE J300 defines the viscometrics related to these grades.
Kinematic viscosity is graded by measuring the time it takes for a standard amount of oil to flow through a standard orifice, at standard temperatures. The longer it takes, the higher the viscosity and thus higher SAE code.
Note that the SAE has a separate viscosity rating system for gear, axle, and manual transmission oils, SAE J306, which should not be confused with engine oil viscosity. The higher numbers of a gear oil (eg 75W-140) do not mean that it has higher viscosity than an engine oil.
A single-grade engine oil, as defined by SAE J300, cannot use a polymeric Viscosity Index Improver (also referred to as Vicosity Modifier) additive. SAE J300 has established eleven viscosity grades, of which six are considered Winter-grades and given a W designation. The 11 viscosity grades are 0W, 5W, 10W, 15W, 20W, 25W, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60. These numbers are often referred to as the ‘weight’ of a motor oil.
For single winter grade oils, the dynamic viscosity is measured at different cold temperatures, specified in J300 depending on the viscosity grade, in units of mPa·s or the equivalent older non-SI units, centipoise (abbreviated cP), using two different test methods. They are the Cold Cranking Simulator (ASTM D5293) and the Mini-Rotary Viscometer (ASTM D4684). Based on the coldest temperature the oil passes at, that oil is graded as SAE viscosity grade 0W, 5W, 10W, 15W, 20W, or 25W. The lower the viscosity grade, the lower the temperature the oil can pass. For example, if an oil passes at the specifications for 10W and 5W, but fails for 0W, then that oil must be labeled as an SAE 5W. That oil cannot be labeled as either 0W or 10W.
For single non-winter grade oils, the kinematic viscosity is measured at a temperature of 100 °C (212 °F) in units of mm²/s or the equivalent older non-SI units, centistokes (abbreviated cSt). Based on the range of viscosity the oil falls in at that temperature, the oil is graded as SAE viscosity grade 20, 30, 40, 50, or 60. In addition, for SAE grades 20, 30, and 40, a minimum viscosity measured at 150 °C (302 °F) and at a high-shear rate is also required. The higher the viscosity, the higher the SAE viscosity grade is.
For some applications, such as when the temperature ranges in use are not very wide, single-grade motor oil is satisfactory; for example, lawn mower engines, industrial applications, and vintage or classic cars.
The temperature range the oil is exposed to in most vehicles can be wide, ranging from cold ambient temperatures in the winter before the vehicle is started up to hot operating temperatures when the vehicle is fully warmed up in hot summer weather. A specific oil will have high viscosity when cold and a low viscosity at the engine’s operating temperature. The difference in viscosities for most single-grade oil is too large between the extremes of temperature. To bring the difference in viscosities closer together, special polymer additives called viscosity index improvers, or VIIs are added to the oil. These additives are used to make the oil a multi-grade motor oil, however it is possible to have a multi-grade oil without the use of VIIs. The idea is to cause the multi-grade oil to have the viscosity of the base grade when cold and the viscosity of the second grade when hot. This enables one type of oil to be generally used all year. In fact, when multi-grades were initially developed, they were frequently described as all-season oil. The viscosity of a multi-grade oil still varies logarithmically with temperature, but the slope representing the change is lessened. This slope representing the change with temperature depends on the nature and amount of the additives to the base oil.
The SAE designation for multi-grade oils includes two viscosity grades; for example, 10W-30 designates a common multi-grade oil. The two numbers used are individually defined by SAE J300 for single-grade oils. Therefore, an oil labeled as 10W-30 must pass the SAE J300 viscosity grade requirement for both 10W and 30, and all limitations placed on the viscosity grades (for example, a 10W-30 oil must fail the J300 requirements at 5W). Also, if an oil does not contain any VIIs, and can pass as a multi-grade, that oil can be labeled with either of the two SAE viscosity grades. For example, a very simple multi-grade oil that can be easily made with modern baseoils without any VII is a 20W-20. This oil can be labeled as 20W-20, 20W, or 20. Note, if any VIIs are used however, then that oil cannot be labeled as a single grade.
The real-world ability of an oil to crank or pump in the cold is potentially diminished soon after it is put into service. The motor oil grade and viscosity to be used in a given vehicle is specified by the manufacturer of the vehicle (although some modern European cars now have no viscosity requirement), but can vary from country to country when climatic or fuel efficiency constraints come into play.
Turbine motor oils are designed somewhat differently than reciprocating engine oils traditionally used in automobiles. Deposit control and corrosion are not significant issues when formulating a turbine oil, and the shear stresses that turbine oils are exposed to are minimal in light of the fact that turbines are naturally balanced rotating machines unlike reciprocating engines. Turbine oils tend to have the ISO VG range 32, 46, and 68 (cSt at 40 °C/104 °F), and make extensive use of diester, polyolester, polyalphaolefin and Group II as base stock due to the high temperatures they must withstand. Some jet turbine oils contain an amount of polyglycols. Varnish is the most problematic contaminant, which can only be detected accurately with the ultra centrifuge test resulting in the “UC value”.
In most aviation gas turbine applications, peak lubricant temperatures are not reached during engine operation, but after shutdown, when heat has been able to migrate from the combustor cans and the compressors into the regions of the engine with lubricated bearings and gearboxes. The gas flow associated with running the turbine provides significant convective cooling that disappears when the engine is shut down, leaving residual heat that causes temperatures within the turbine to rise dramatically, an often-misunderstood phenomenon.
American Petroleum Institute
The American Petroleum Institute (API) sets minimum performance standards for lubricants. Motor oil is used for the lubrication, cooling, and cleaning of internal combustion engines. Motor oil may be composed of a lubricant base stock only in the case of non-detergent oil, or a lubricant base stock plus additives to improve the oil’s detergency, extreme pressure performance, and ability to inhibit corrosion of engine parts. Lubricant base stocks are categorized into five groups by the API. Group I base stocks are composed of fractionally distilled petroleum which is further refined with solvent extraction processes to improve certain properties such as oxidation resistance and to remove wax. Group II base stocks are composed of fractionally distilled petroleum that has been hydrocracked to further refine and purify it. Group III base stocks have similar characteristics to Group II base stocks, except that Group III base stocks have higher viscosity indexes. Group III base stocks are produced by further hydrocracking of Group II base stocks, or of hydroisomerized slack wax, (a byproduct of the dewaxing process). Group IV base stock are polyalphaolefins (PAOs). Group V is a catch-all group for any base stock not described by Groups I to IV. Examples of group V base stocks include polyol esters, polyalkylene glycols (PAG oils), and perfluoropolyalkylethers (PFPAEs). Groups I and II are commonly referred to as mineral oils, group III is typically referred to as synthetic (except in Germany and Japan, where they must not be called synthetic) and group IV is a synthetic oil. Group V base oils are so diverse that there is no catch-all description.
API service classes
The API service classes have two general classifications: S for “service” (originating from spark ignition) (typical passenger cars and light trucks using gasoline engines), and C for “commercial” (originating from compression ignition) (typical diesel equipment). Engine oil which has been tested and meets the API standards may display the API Service Symbol (also known as the “Donut”) with the service designation on containers sold to oil users.
Note that the API oil classification structure has eliminated specific support for wet-clutch motorcycle applications in their descriptors, and API SJ and newer oils are referred to be specific to automobile and light truck use. Accordingly, motorcycle oils are subject to their own unique standards.
The latest API service standard designation is SM for gasoline automobile and light-truck engines. The SM standard refers to a group of laboratory and engine tests, including the latest series for control of high-temperature deposits. Current API service categories include SM, SL and SJ for gasoline engines. All previous service designations are obsolete, although motorcycle oils commonly still use the SF/SG standard.
All the current gasoline categories (including the obsolete SH), have placed limitations on the phosphorus content for certain SAE viscosity grades (the xW-20, xW-30) due to the chemical poisoning that phosphorus has on catalytic converters. Phosphorus is a key anti-wear component in motor oil and is usually found in motor oil in the form of Zinc_dithiophosphate. Each new API category has placed successively lower phosphorus limits, and this has created a controversial issue of backwards compatibility with much older engines, especially engines with sliding tappets. API, and ILSAC, which represents most of the worlds major automobile/engine manufactures, states API SM/ILSAC GF-4 is fully backwards compatible, and it is noted that one of the engine tests required for API SM, the Sequence IVA, is a sliding tappet design to test specifically for cam wear protection. However, not everyone is in agreement with backwards compatibility, and in addition, there are special situations, such as “modified” engines or fully race built engines, where the engine protection requirements are above and beyond API/ILSAC requirements. Because of this, there are specialty oils out in the market place with higher than API allowed phosphorus levels.
There are six diesel engine service designations which are current: CJ-4, CI-4, CH-4, CG-4, CF-2, and CF. All others are obsolete. In addition, API created a separated CI-4 PLUS designation in conjunction with CJ-4 and CI-4 for oils that meet certain extra requirements, and this marking is located in the lower portion of the API Service Symbol “Donut”.
It is possible for an oil to conform to both the gasoline and diesel standards. In fact, it is the norm for all diesel rated engine oils to carry the “corresponding” gasoline specification. For example, API CJ-4 will almost always list either SL or SM, API CI-4 with SL, API CH-4 with SJ … etc.
The International Lubricant Standardization and Approval Committee (ILSAC) also has standards for motor oil. Their latest standard, GF-4 was approved in 2004, and applies to SAE 0W-20, 5W-20, 0W-30, 5W-30, and 10W-30 viscosity grade oils. In general, ILSAC works with API in creating the newest gasoline oil specification, with ILSAC adding an extra requirement of fuel economy testing to their specification. For GF-4, a Sequence VIB Fuel Economy Test (ASTM D6837) is required that is not required in API service category SM.
A key new test for GF-4, which is also required for API SM, is the Sequence IIIG, which involves running a 3.8 L (232 in³), GM 3.8 L V-6 at 125 hp (93 kW), 3,600 rpm, and 150 °C (300 °F) oil temperature for 100 hours. These are much more severe conditions than any API-specified oil was designed for: cars which typically push their oil temperature consistently above 100 °C (212 °F) are most turbocharged engines, along with most engines of European or Japanese origin, particularly small capacity, high power output.
The IIIG test is about 50% more difficult than the previous IIIF test, used in GF-3 and API SL oils. Engine oils bearing the API starburst symbol since 2005 are ILSAC GF-4 compliant.
The ACEA (Association des Constructeurs Européens d’Automobiles) performance/quality classifications A3/A5 tests used in Europe are arguably more stringent than the API and ILSAC standards. CEC (The Co-ordinating European Council) is the development body for fuel and lubricant testing in Europe and beyond, setting the standards via their European Industry groups; ACEA, ATIEL, ATC and CONCAWE.
The Japanese Automotive Standards Organization (JASO) has come up with their own set of performance and quality standards for petrol engines of Japanese origin.
For 4-stroke gasoline engines, the JASO T904 standard is used, and is particularly relevant to motorcycle engines. The JASO T904-MA and MA2 standards are designed to distinguish oils that are approved for wet clutch use, and the JASO T904-MB standard is not suitable for wet clutch use.
For 2-stroke gasoline engines, the JASO M345 (FA, FB, FC) standard is used, and this refers particularly to low ash, lubricity, detergency, low smoke and exhaust blocking.
These standards, especially JASO-MA and JASO-FC, are designed to address oil-requirement issues not addressed by the API service categories.
OEM standards divergence
By the early 1990s, many of the European original equipment manufacturer (OEM) car manufacturers felt that the direction of the American API oil standards was not compatible with the needs of a motor oil to be used in their motors. As a result many leading European motor manufacturers created and developed their own “OEM” oil standards.
Probably the most well known of these are the VW50*.0* series from Volkswagen Group, and the MB22*.** from Mercedes-Benz. Other European OEM standards are from General Motors, for the Vauxhall, Opel and Saab brands, the Ford “WSS” standards, BMW Special Oils and BMW Longlife standards, Porsche, and the PSA Group of Peugeot and Citroën. General Motors also has the 4718M standard that is used for the Chevrolet Corvette, a standard that is used in North America for selected North American performance engines, with a “Use Mobil 1 only” sticker usually placed on those cars.
In recent times, very highly specialised “extended drain” “longlife” oils have arisen, whereby, taking Volkswagen Group vehicles, a petrol engine can now go up to 2 years or 30,000 km (~18,600 mi), and a diesel engine can go up to 2 years or 50,000 km (~31,000 mi) – before requiring an oil change. Volkswagen (504.00), BMW, GM, Mercedes and PSA all have their own similar longlife oil standards. Another trend of today represent midSAP (sulfated ash <0,8 wt.-%) and lowSAP (sulfated ash <0,5 wt.-%) engine oil (see specifications: Renault RN 0720, FORD WSS-M2C934-A). The ACEA specifications C1 to C4 reflect the midSAP and lowSAP needs of automotive OEMs. Furthermore, virtually all European OEM standards require a long drains of 30.000 km and up by using HTHS (High Temperature, High Shear) viscosity, many around the 3.5 cP (3.5 mPa·s). In Japan, the HTHS figures are low as >2.6 mPas.
Because of the real or perceived need for motor oils with unique qualities, many modern European cars will demand a specific OEM-only oil standard. As a result, they may make no reference at all to API standards, nor SAE viscosity grades. They may also make no primary reference to the ACEA standards, with the exception of being able to use a “lesser” ACEA grade oil for “emergency top-up”, though this usually has strict limits, often up to a maximum of ½ a litre of non-OEM oil.
In addition to the viscosity index improvers, motor oil manufacturers often include other additives such as detergents and dispersants to help keep the engine clean by minimizing sludge buildup, corrosion inhibitors, and alkaline additives to neutralize acidic oxidation products of the oil. Most commercial oils have a minimal amount of zinc dialkyldithiophosphate as an anti-wear additive to protect contacting metal surfaces with zinc and other compounds in case of metal to metal contact. The quantity of zinc dialkyldithiophosphate is limited to minimize adverse effect on catalytic converters. Another aspect for after-treatment devices is the deposition of oil ash, which increases the exhaust back pressure and reduces over time the fuel economy. The so-called “chemical box” limits today the concentrations of sulfur, ash and phosphorus (SAP).
There are other additives available commercially which can be added to the oil by the user for purported additional benefit. Some of these additives include:
Synthetic oil and synthetic blends
Synthetic lubricants were first synthesized, or man-made, in significant quantities as replacements for mineral lubricants (and fuels) by German scientists in the late 1930s and early 1940s because of their lack of sufficient quantities of crude for their (primarily military) needs. A significant factor in its gain in popularity was the ability of synthetic-based lubricants to remain fluid in the sub-zero temperatures of the Eastern front in wintertime, temperatures which caused petroleum-based lubricants to solidify due to their higher wax content. The use of synthetic lubricants widened through the 1950s and 1960s due to a property at the other end of the temperature spectrum, the ability to lubricate aviation engines at temperatures that caused mineral-based lubricants to break down. In the mid 1970s, synthetic motor oils were formulated and commercially applied for the first time in automotive applications. The same SAE system for designating motor oil viscosity also applies to synthetic oils.
Instead of making motor oil with the conventional petroleum base, “true” synthetic oil base stocks are artificially synthesized. Synthetic oils are derived from either Group III mineral base oils, Group IV, or Group V non-mineral bases. True synthetics include classes of lubricants like synthetic esters as well as “others” like GTL (Methane Gas-to-Liquid) (Group V) and polyalpha-olefins (Group IV). Higher purity and therefore better property control theoretically means synthetic oil has good mechanical properties at extremes of high and low temperatures. The molecules are made large and “soft” enough to retain good viscosity at higher temperatures, yet branched molecular structures interfere with solidification and therefore allow flow at lower temperatures. Thus, although the viscosity still decreases as temperature increases, these synthetic motor oils have a much improved viscosity index over the traditional petroleum base. Their specially designed properties allow a wider temperature range at higher and lower temperatures and often include a lower pour point. With their improved viscosity index, true synthetic oils need little or no viscosity index improvers, which are the oil components most vulnerable to thermal and mechanical degradation as the oil ages, and thus they do not degrade as quickly as traditional motor oils. However, they still fill up with particulate matter, although at a lower rate compared to conventional oils, and the oil filter still fills and clogs up over time. So, periodic oil and filter changes should still be done with synthetic oil; but some synthetic oil suppliers suggest that the intervals between oil changes can be longer, sometimes as long as 16,000-24,000 km (10,000–15,000 mi).
With improved efficiency, synthetic lubricants are designed to make wear and tear on gears far less than with petroleum-based lubricants, reduce the incidence of oil oxidation and sludge formation, and allow for “long life” extended drain intervals. Today, synthetic lubricants are available for use in modern automobiles on nearly all lubricated components, potentially with superior performance and longevity as compared to non-synthetic alternatives. Some tests have shown that fully synthetic oil is superior to conventional oil in many respects, providing better engine protection, performance, and better flow in cold starts than petroleum-based motor oil.
In engines, there is inevitably some exposure of the oil to products of internal combustion, and microscopic coke particles from black soot accumulate in the oil during operation. Also the rubbing of metal engine parts inevitably produces some microscopic metallic particles from the wearing of the surfaces. Such particles could circulate in the oil and grind against the part surfaces causing wear. The oil filter removes many of the particles and sludge, but eventually the oil filter can become clogged, if used for extremely long periods. The motor oil and especially the additives also undergo thermal and mechanical degradation. For these reasons, the oil and the oil filter need to be periodically replaced.
The vehicle manufacturer may specify which SAE viscosity grade of oil should be used for the vehicles it produces, but many different weights can actually be used. Some manufacturers have specific quality test requirements or “specs” for service in their particular make. In the USA, most quick oil change shops recommended intervals of 5,000 km (3,000 mi) or every 3 months which is not necessary according to new car manuals from manufacturers. This has led to a 3,000 mile myth among most Americans.
With a degree of ambiguity about how many miles motor oil is actually good for, some people opt for a more convenient time-based schedule. Seasonal changes are desirable where the viscosity can be adjusted for the ambient temperature change, thicker for summer heat and thinner for the winter cold. As a general rule, the thinnest oil that does not produce excess wear is used. Time-based intervals account for both the short trip driver who does fewer miles, but builds up more contaminates, as well as the long highway trips that are much easier on the oil. Many modern cars now list somewhat higher intervals for changing of oil and filter, with the constraint of “severe” service requiring more frequent changes with less-than ideal driving; contrary to what most people think, this applies to short trips of under 16 km (10 mi), where the oil does not get to full operating temps long enough to burn off condensation, excess fuel, and other contamination that leads to “sludge”, “varnish”, “acids”, or other deposits. In contrast, an engine which runs continually for hours, such as for a taxi, or long-distance driving, is considered “normal” service. Many manufacturers have engine computer calculations to estimate the oil’s condition based on the factors which degrade it such as RPMs, temperatures, and trip length; and one system adds an optical sensor for determining the clarity of the oil in the engine. These systems are commonly known as Oil Life Monitors or OLMs. Over the years, manufacturers have been able to reduce the viscosity of oil needed to correctly lubricate the engine and extend the duration of the servicable life. In the 1970s, typical cars took heavy 10W-40 oil which was used for a duration of 3,250 km (2,000 mi) or less. In the 1980s, 5W-30 oils were introduced to improve gas mileage and engine performance. A modern typical application would be Honda Motor’s use of 5W-20 viscosity oil for 12,000 km (7,500 mi) without excess wear or deposits, while offering maximum mpg. Most other manufacturers use 20-weight oils as well. The latest API “SM” spec offers a substantially better product than preceding specifications.
A process to break down polyethylene, a common plastic product found in many consumer containers, is used to make wax with the correct molecular properties for conversion into a lubricant, bypassing the expensive Fischer-Tropsch process. The plastic is melted and then pumped into a furnace. The heat of the furnace breaks down the molecular chains of polyethylene into wax. Finally, the wax is subjected to a catalytic process that alters the wax’s molecular structure, leaving a clear oil. (Miller, et al., 2005)
Biodegradable Motor Oils based on esters (ELF HTX 822, Castrol Greentec LS 5W-30) or hydrocarbon-ester blends (BP Vistra 7000) appeared in the mid nineties followed by formulations beginning in 2000 (FUCHS Titan GT1 0W-20), which respond to the bio-no-tox-criteria of the European preparations directive (EC/1999/45). This means, that they not only are biodegradable according to OECD 301x test methods, but also the aquatic toxicities (fish, algae, daphnie) are each above 100 mg/L. At the same time, in U.S. were presented motor oils based on vegetable esters, like AMG Bio 10W-30.
The benefit of these new formulations is its ability to get back into soil with fewer negative consequences. Typical motor oil needs to go through special treatment facilities, whereas biodegradable motor oil has less impact on the environment if spilled on the ground. All used motor oils can contain toxic heavy metals, however, and even biodegradable oils should be recycled properly and not spilled into the environment!
Another class of base oils suited for engine oils represents the polyalkylene glycols (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_oil). They offer zeroAsh, bio-no-tox properties and lean burn characteristics.
Some popular major producers