Technology

A touch of lubrication does wonders

 By Nicholas Newman

The use of lubrication is in everything we do, yet for most people it is ignored. Without lubrication, everyday tasks would be much harder. The existence of lubricants is vital in ensuring that all types of engine deliver their optimum output. For instance without lubricants, your car would not work. ENI Divisional R&D technology formulation is responsible for providing some the world’s leading lubricants for protective, transport and industrial purposes. Nicholas Newman looks at the story behind some of ENI Divisional R&D innovation in lubricants…

(Cover photo by www.flowcontrolnetwork.com)

Lubricants are as essential today as they were to ancient Egyptians who relied on olive oil to lubricate the wheels of chariots that hauled large stones. Without lubricants, everyday tasks like cycling or driving to work, cooking or mowing the lawn, would be much harder. The machines that drill oil and gas wells and make our computers or your cars also need lubricants. Over the years, the science of lubrication and lubricants has advanced considerably. Eni Divisional R&D technology formulation is responsible for providing some the world’s leading lubricants for protective, transport and industrial purposes, supplying the needs of many customer segments including motorists, truckers, shipping and industrial users.

Lubrication has a variety of purposes ranging from protecting machine parts, reducing friction, transferring energy and preventing corrosion very often, in a single application. A case in point is bicycle oil–when applied to the chain and axle, it protects against rust and helps to transfer energy from your pedaling to the movement of the bicycle along the road or path. Today’s lubricants are marketed and differentiated according to function–automotive oil, hydraulic oil, process oil, demolding oils, lubricating greases, chainsaw oils, compressor oils, turbine oils, industrial gear oils and metal-working oils.

ENI lubricants

Use of Additives

Lubricants by themselves are not enough to protect an engine or ensure that it works effectively. For this, lubricant makers such as Eni have to incorporate additives, which are either organic or inorganic compounds dissolved or suspended as solids in oil. They typically range between 0.1 to 30 percent of the oil’s volume, according to the market segment (function and machine).

Additives have three basic roles: The first is to enhance the base-oil properties with anti-oxidants, corrosion-inhibitors, anti-foam agents and demulsifying agents. The second is to subdue unwanted base-oil properties, with pour-point depressants and viscosity index (VI) improvers. The last is to add new characteristics to base oils by including extreme pressure (EP) additives, detergents, metal deactivators and tackiness agents. Incorporating such additives to car engine lubricants makes for a quicker start in cold weather, while maintaining its high-temperature properties. Unfortunately for car owners, such lubrication has to be replaced at regular intervals because the additives in the lubrication wear out.

Mauro Anzani of Eni Divisional R&D in Rome, explains that “Eni have designed ‘special lubricants’ able to cope with a range of climatic conditions for machines operating in the extreme conditions of the Arctic oil fields of Siberia and northern Canada.” The company has also created a special grease, good for 100 years, for use on the sea-gate hinges of the Venetian Sea Defence System (MOSE), which was constructed to protect Venice from excessive flooding.

 

The MOSE system in Venice

Towards a carbon-free future

Today, there are increasing policy and market pressures to reduce the negative environmental impact of lubricants and move towards a carbon-free future. In response to this, “Eni is focusing its research and innovation commitments to technologies that are the basis of this new model of growth, sustainable from both the environmental and economical standpoints,” says Anzani.

Eni is developing innovative lubrication products, building on its core internal strengths. These include access to formulation technology and major components (base stocks, additives); proprietary know-how; test facilities (physic-chemical labs, test rigs, engines, vehicles) and grounded know-how for performance demonstration of components and finished lubricants.

Eni works with external bodies including leading Italian research centers and universities in Milan, Parma, Firenze and Pisa as well as major American universities including Tulane University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company also collaborates with original equipment manufacturers and stakeholders such as Fiat and the European Commission. In addition, its research and development facilities are ascribed to ISO 9001 certification and EN 17025 accreditation. It is this combination of internal strengths and external relationships that ensures that Eni Divisional R&D innovation in lubricants remains at the forefront of innovation.

 

New biolubrication opportunities

Eni Divisional R&D innovation in lubricants is currently creating new lubricant additives and developing new performance testing methodologies. One important and promising line of research is the development of biolubricant products. “It means, for instance, that the lubricants that a farmer uses in his tractor or harvester will be based on biocrops the farmer is likely to have grown himself,” explains Mauro Anzani.

For Eni, there are many hurdles to overcome in this pioneering field, chief of which is bringing down the cost so the product is competitively priced. As Eni representative Alberto Delbianco observes, “at present, biolubricant cost around 1.5-2 times the current price of lubricants using mineral base oils.” However, he adds, “biolubricants are comparable to the cost of the best-in-class synthetic lubricants employing synthetic base oils such as Esters.” (Esters are chemical compounds derived from an acid.)

 

Benefits of biolubricants

Among the chief benefits of biolubricants is their high viscosity index (VI) compared to mineral oil and their availability in a variety of formats for different functions. These include automotive oils, hydraulic oil, process oil, demolding oils, lubricating greases, chainsaw oils, compressor oils, turbine oils, industrial gear oils and metal working oils. For instance, biolubricants are gaining popularity from users of heavy earth-moving equipment in construction and mining activities. Also available on the market are bio-based hydraulic fluids to improve the performance of an airplane’s hydraulic systems. Some users are concerned with issues of oxidative stability and poor cold-flow performance, but bio-based lubricants are quite efficient and effective as compared to petroleum-based lubricants.

Another important property of biolubricants is their high flash points, typically 326 degrees C (610 degrees F) compared to 200 degrees C (392 degrees F) for most mineral oils or 221 degrees C for polyalphaolefin (PAO) and 177 degrees C for polyglycol. Their higher heat tolerance and lower fire risk are a very useful property in the case of industrial accidents.

 

New ENI Diesel+

Biolubricant market

 

The world’s leading environmental protection agencies in the US and EU have introduced a series of regulations designed to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, opening up a major market for biolubricants and encouraging innovation. As Alberto Delbianco states, this is “stimulating the development of new lube generations, which are at the forefront of enhanced performance requirements. And, whilst the demand for high-quality bio-derived base stocks and flexible/long lasting chemical additives is comparatively small this segment is continuing to expand.”

According to Transparency Market Research Report, “Biolubricants Market – Global Scenario, Trends, Industry Analysis, Size, Share and Forecast, 2010 – 2018,” the bio-based lubricants market was worth $1.7 billion in 2011 and is forecast to reach $2.3 billion in 2017—the agricultural and manufacturing sectors account for about half of those numbers.

Diversification: New Green Refineries

“Eni as part of its focus on the ‘green economy’ has set up two major industrial projects: the first is near Venice (biorefinery) and the second is in Sardinia at Porto Torres (chemicals),” says Anzani. These recent investments are in anticipation of increased demand for green-based products. According to Anzani, “this initiative is expected to trigger a ‘value chain’ that starts from renewable raw materials and capitalizes on the crops farmed in marginal lands (otherwise not exploitable) to create a ‘package’ of integrated formulations of eco-friendly lubricants, fuels and auxiliary fluids.”

SEE MORE: How ecofining was born by RP Siegel

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Bio-refinery Venice

The Biorefinery in Venice, completed in 2014, is a pioneering world first conversion of a traditional oil refinery. It involved the complete revamping of the equipment and ancillary units of two pre-existing plants for the desulfurization of diesel into a single EcofiningTM plant for the production of biofuels. Employing technology developed by Eni and in partnership with Honeywell-UOP, sulfur emissions have been significantly reduced. The biorefinery is able to produce a range of high-grade biofuels and lubricants–in particular “biodiesel” from blending commercial diesel oil and the new “Eni Diesel+” thus meeting the EU Directive on renewable energy, says Anzani.

The plant can produce around 300,000 metric tons of green diesel a year from an initial feedstock of palm oil which in the second phase will include some animal fats, used-oils, oils from algae and various types of biological waste.

Eni’s Green Chemistry set

The Matrìca’s project is a 50/50 joint venture between an Eni subsidiary Versalis (Italy’s largest chemical company) and its partner Novamont SPA (a leading Italian bioplastics and biochemical company), at Porto Torres in Northern Sardinia. The Porto Torres facility is the world’s largest and most innovative integrated green chemicals plant.

Based on proprietary Italian technology, the plant uses a low-environmental-impact oxidation process to split vegetable oils into mono- and dicarboxylic acids. These are used to produce a broad and diversified range of esters which are subsequently used in the manufacture of cosmetics, personal care products, detergents, food fragrances and the synthesis of biolubricants. What makes Porto Torres’s output so exciting is that its products are biodegradable and of low toxicity, which makes them both sustainable and high performance.

Future

The challenges we will face in the future may be different from today’s, but there is always likely to be a need for lubricants, even with the introduction of electric cars. What is clear from Eni and its partners’ investments and research is that lubricants are likely to become more green, more sustainable and more productive than in the past.

 

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide. https://nicholasnewman.contently.com/