Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2013   by Tom Venetis, Editor

Re-Refined Oils

Forget everything you may think you know about re-refined oils. The truth is re-refining is environmentally safe and produces high-quality base oils.

There are certain myths that need to be fought whenever they raise their heads. That Shakespeare was not the author of the plays attributed to him in the First Folio, which instead are the work of Edward de Vere; that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a CIA/Mafia/Cuban/Illuminati conspiracy (take your pick, if you must) to assassinate JFK; that motor oils using re-refined base oils are inferior to motor oils using ‘virgin’ base oils.

All of these are false — particularly the one about re-refined base oils.

Chris Parent, district manager with Newalta, a product recovery company with six facilities across Canada, says this myth about re-refined base oils is one that grew out of the early days of waste oil recovery. In the early 1980s, the term recycling was used indiscriminately, often applied to recovered oils that had little actual re-refining done to them. “Back in the 1980s, someone I knew used to buy what he called ‘re-refined oil’ and it was essentially filtered waste oil. He would use this in his vehicle!”

The reality today is the recovery and re-refining of spent oil is a fast growing business in North America and the process for re-refining spent motor oils into new base stock is one of the most ecologically-friendly approaches to handling the vast quantities of used motor oils.

Barry McCabe, director of marketing, Oil Re-Refining Division, EcoPower, with Safety-Kleen Systems Inc., says his company collects some 200 million gallons of used oil in North America, with plenty more potential to grow.

In fact, over 1.4 billion gallons of used oil is created in North America which can potentially be re-refined into any number of useful lubricants and high-quality base oils, so the market is ever-expanding.

Canada’s Newalta collects some 36 million litres of waste oil which it processes into some 24 million litres of high-quality base oil.

The Re-Refining Process

When used motor oil is collected, the molecules of the base oil are, in fact, intact. Motor oils are pretty much 80 per cent base oil, with the remaining 20 per cent being the additive package developed by the oil blenders. This additive package is what provides the engine protection and enhanced lubricity, viscosity and protection against chemical breakdown and contaminates. Over time, the additive package protecting the engine breaks down. The base oil, however, remains largely intact.

“As engine oil goes through its lifecycle in an engine, it picks up a lot of dirt and metal from the engine, just through the normal friction in the engine,” says Dann Bates, manager, recovery services, Canada with NOCO.

What re-refining does is remove all the accumulated engine contaminates and the now spent additive package in order to recover the intact base oil which can be used once more in the blending of new vehicle motor oils.

According to Newalta, Safety-Kleen and NOCO, the process is very much the same as if one were making ‘virgin’ base oil from crude oil.

The process can be broken down for easier understanding thus: first, the waste oil that comes into the facility to be re-refined is analyzed to ensure that it is of high quality and that it does not contain any chemicals or physical contaminants that could be deemed hazardous or harmful, or would cause problems during the re-refining process. After this, a dehydration process is used to remove water, then lightweight ­chemicals are removed, such as glycol or light fuels. A fuel stripping process takes out any heavier fuels from the oil. Vacuum distillation and hydro treating remove any final impurities, resulting in the production of high-quality base oils that meet all current API standards.

The final product is as good or even better than the base oil used when the motor oil was first blended, says Alain Portelance, director, ORS sales and marketing with Newalta. “The Group 2 base oil that we produce at the end of the process is no different from the Group 2 base oil produced by the large, integrated oil companies,” he adds.

The Growing Market for Re-Refined Base Oils

One of the major selling points for re-refining is that its environmental footprint is much smaller than the process used in producing ‘virgin’ base oil. While the processes are similar, making base oil from crude is an intensive, high-carbon footprint process involving first getting crude oil out of the ground, then shipping it and finally refining it into a usable oil product. Re-refining reduces that dramatically as one is taking an existing product, in this case spent motor oil, and re-refining it to extract usable products, such as glycol and base oils. This has made both the process and final products compelling to those who are looking for more ecologically-friendly products for their vehicles.

Thom Smith, vice-president of branded lubricant technology for Valvoline, says vehicle owners are much more aware now of how their purchasing decisions impact the environment, and the company’s NextGen motor oils are made for this growing market segment.

“Today’s consumer is looking to ‘Go Green,’ and NextGen is one way of helping them do just that.”

Valvoline’s NextGen line of oils are marketed as oils that meet all of today’s API standards and provide the same lubrication and protection as Valvoline’s other motor oils, but the impact on the environment is much less. NextGen is available in Canada in two sizes, and conventional NextGen and high-mileage MaxLife NextGen are available at quick lubes and service shops, according to Valvoline.

“Basically, we have positioned (NextGen) as an alternative to our regular products and positioned them as being better for the environment,” adds Rob Stravitz, vice-president of marketing for Valvoline Instant Oil Change. “You get the same performance as you would from all of our regular products, but the carbon footprint and the impact on the environment is dramatically lower.”

Stravitz says when consumers are educated about the benefits of re-refining, the quality of the base oil produced and of the NextGen products, over 40 per cent of consumers will decide to go with NextGen as part of their oil change.

“The biggest issue for the consumer is ‘Does it work as well,’” Stravitz says. “A car is a big purchase and you get an oil change because you have to, so you want to know if it will perform as well as other products.”

Safety-Kleen’s McCabe says his company’s EcoPower line of oils is also making an impact amongst consumers who are looking to make more ecologically-friendly choices. EcoPower has been put through rigorous testing to show its quality. According to a release put out by Safety-Kleen, in fully-loaded, long-haul service tests conducted by Infineum International, using trucks equipped with 2007 Cummins ISX 450-horsepower EGR engines, EcoPower HD 15W-40 CJ-4/SM performed equal to or better than two leading heavy-duty diesel engine oils.

The simple fact is that the quality of re-refined oil being produced today is incredibly high, with more people coming to understand the value of re-refining. Those charged with collecting waste oil, such as service operations and quick lube shops, also know the value of re-refining and now put a high premium on preventing cross-contamination of the oil they col
lect to be re-refined into new base oils.

The days when waste oil was burned or thrown on gravel to keep dust down have, thankfully, long since passed.