Fortunately, there is still good news: In a study published in the journal Science Advance, researchers developed a method to move away from using synthetic base oils by exploring strategies to create an efficient production pipeline for eco-friendly lubricants.
The study was led by researchers from the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) at the University of Delaware. Their report aimed to formulate a plan for creating sustainable and efficient lubricant base oils production using non-food biomass
“We've provided a new, efficient and versatile catalytic reaction pathway for synthesis of renewable lubricants with tunable properties,” said co-author Sibao Liu.
The proposed strategy is based around “a very precise chemical way” of turning renewable raw materials into high-performance base oil with tunable properties. Researchers claim that the new lubricant ingredient is unlike anything that currently exists in the market. (Related: Seed oil components of an ornamental plant show potential as a new class of environmentally-friendly lubricant.)
Common lubricants such as oils, greases, and emollients leave a significant amount of environmental footprint. These common modern-day lubricants, which are usually made up of minerals or petroleum and base oils, leave up to 90 percent of their weight in environmental footprint. Moreover, lubricants require large quantities of natural resources to produce; only for most of the product to go to waste. The study aims to develop a process that uses renewables to reduce wastage.
For CCEI associate director Basu Saha, this novel chemical process is nothing short of special: It uses renewables including wood, switchgrass, and fatty acids, as well as other types of sustainable organic waste as catalysts to synthesize base oils.
“For lubricants, catalysis allows researchers to not only synthesize new and existing structurally similar base-oils from bio-based feedstock but lends extensive control over the molecules' weight, size distribution, branching and specifications,” he added.
The catalysis-based synthesizing process is believed to be scalable. Liu and his team are hopeful that they will see this bio-based base oil production technology be developed to the point that it “eventually displaces the manufacturing process for some lubricants used today and minimize environmental carbon footprint.”
Still, Liu is pragmatic, saying that there's still a long way to go. It's difficult to disagree; despite the huge global demand for lubricants -- around 36.4 million metric tons in 2018 according to statistics site Statista -- major oil companies are yet to release any verifiably renewable and eco-friendly lubricants.
One would think that lubricants became ubiquitous due to industrialization, but slippery substances applied to reduce friction between two or more components in a machine go a long way back in human history. Ancient Egyptians are known to have used animal fat on the axles of their now famous chariots as early as 2,400 B.C. Maybe in the future, people will finally figure out a way to create a lubricating oil that's more efficient and environmentally friendly than the kind left by the ancient Egyptians.
To learn more about natural lubricants and its impact on the environment, visit Environ.news.