Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2012   by Noelle Stapinsky

Oil Changes

Recycled motor oils are gaining market share, creating a new segment and feeding the demand for green alternatives

With over one billion vehicles on the roads worldwide, billions of gallons of used motor oil are being disposed of annually. And although past disposal practices may have proved a little dodgy, environmental sustainability has become top-of-mind for consumers and industry alike.

Today, more of those oils are being collected and re-refined, and with such an abundance of feedstock now available more companies are looking for ways to reconstitute those oils to get them back in the automotive market.

Conventional motor oils are formulated using about 80 per cent virgin base oil and 20 per cent company-proprietary additives for performance attributes. Such additives are comprised of dispersant and detergent — the former keeps contaminants such as sludge, residue and carbons in a state of suspension, while the latter helps clean areas where contaminant deposits can form.

“It’s not quite like laundry detergent, but it’s similar in chemistry,” says Jeff Hsu of Shell Projects and Technology US. “This is probably the biggest part of the technology that gives us the ability to keep the engines clean.”

Because of the dispersant additive, when used motor oil is extracted from a vehicle it often has fuel, metals and sludge built up within the formula. A common myth most people believe is that used motor oil breaks down or burns out and is not reusable. But, in fact, as oil goes through the drain cycle in the engine, it’s the additives that wear-out, and the vast majority of molecules that make up the base oil are still intact.

Certainly the process of re-refining oil is not new. Traditionally, used motor oil was put through an acid clay [filtration] treatment. Although this process did clean the oil relatively well and was reusable for ocean vessels or incinerators, for example, it did not meet the standards for automotive purposes. But a new technology has come into play, allowing companies to return the base oil to an automotive standard.

Safety-Kleen, a North America’s collector and refiner of used motor oil and maker of the EcoPower-branded recycled oil, says it reclaims over 200 million gallons of used oil from 115,000 locations per year, and uses a vacuum distillation and hydrotreating process to refine that oil.

And just a little over a year ago, Valvoline, a worldwide distributor and producer of automotive and industrial products, launched NextGen conventional motor oil, which uses 50 per cent of re-refined oil in its base.

“We started looking at this about 10 years ago,” says Fran Lockwood, senior vice-president of research and development for Valvoline. “There were a number of things that had to come into play in order to do it. One, there had to be enough of the higher quality material available to make a product that’s going to sell at some volume. Secondly, we also looked at the consumer acceptance factor. We feel that in general consumers are becoming more educated on the importance of environmental aspects.”

Like crude oil, used motor oil is often dark and smelly. To create NextGen, the technology used is very similar to how crude oil is processed today. “The front end of the process is a little different, but the backend of the process — putting the oil through catalytic converters and adding hydrogen — is similar. And using modern refinery processing techniques you can attain a very high quality product,” says Lockwood.

The process is started with a flash distillation to remove water, fuel and other contaminants. It’s then put through a film evaporation to remove heavy particles. Next is the hydrotreating process to refresh the oil molecules and reduce nitrogen and sulphur.

“Hydrotreating attacks the molecules we don’t want and converts them to hydra carbons that we do want. It chemically reacts to molecules that are unsaturated and may have sulphur or crude oil in them,” says Lockwood. “One benefit of the recycled feed is that it’s far higher in the molecules that we do want. It’s already undergone a lot of reaction processes to get rid of the materials that we don’t want. It has also been rearranged, so relatively it’s a much purer starting material, particularly from engine oil.”

The last step in the process is a final distillation to remove remaining contaminants and separate the oils into different grades. “We use Group One and Two grade base oils. Group One would be for more traditional categories, while most of today’s [vehicle] production in North America has gone to Group Two.”

The difference between the two is basically performance levels and different viscosity ratings (or flow resistance).

Calgary-based Newalta, which specializes in recovering and recycling industrial residues, recently started advertising its re-refined base oils under the name Advanta Eco. Alain Portelance, Newalta product sales and marketing manager says, “Re-refined base oil isn’t that different from virgin base oil. We use it in all the lubricants we manufacturer, such as passenger car motor oil (PCMO), heavy duty engine oil and hydraulic oils.”

For Valvoline, NextGen has been one of the most successful in its PCMO history in first year launches. According to Darryl Gaines, marketing manager for Valvoline, “In the first year of launching NextGen it outpaced MaxLife, which was one of our most successful launches 12 years ago. Having said that, we realize we’re still in the early adopter phase of the new product for trial and awareness.”

To promote the product, Valvoline offers communication materials, online and in-store training, and in the retail environment it’s priced the same as traditional oils.

“We did research and got some consumer data. If the price of NextGen was cheaper than traditional Valvoline products, the consumer might perceive it as a less quality product,” says Gaines. “Customers might think it’s dirty stuff going into a bottle, but it’s not. It’s better, newer and re-refined just like the traditional Valvoline motor oil that you find today.”

For those that need more evidence of performance quality, Gaines says, “One of our biggest proof points is through NASCAR and NHRA. Matt Kenseth who won the Daytona 500 this year had the NextGen racing formula in the vehicle.”

In terms of process cost, Portelance says, “Group Two re-refined base oils and virgin oils operate under the same market conditions.” Of course, the competitive advantage the recycled products has is that it decreases our dependence on foreign oil — which needs to be found, drilled, transported and refined — consequently reducing the carbon footprint.

With increased pressure from government and consumers, sustainability and environmental issues have many industries scrambling to decrease waste and adopt more sustainable practices. Although for this segment, the government has not yet completely stepped in.

“Recycled oils are an interesting concept,” says Hsu. “There are some municipalities that we test with where there is a mandate for reconstituted base oils in order to get state or federal money.”

According to Portelance, most government authorities in Canada are yet to put requirements in place for re-refined content in lubricant purchases, but the US government is leading the charge, where certain jurisdictions include minimum requirements in their tenders.

“The demands are growing for more environmentally and sustainable practices. There is going to be growth [in this segment],” says Portelance. “The fact that a major like Valvoline has gone into the marketplace, you have to ask yourself how long it will be until their competitors react to it?”

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