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Researchers synthesise renewable base oils

Researchers for the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) have reported a new strategy for efficiently creating base oils for lubricants from biomass product like wood and such organic waste, as well as from the fatty acids of used animal- and vegetable-based fats and oils.

Lubrication is an essential component of modern life. Wind turbines, car engines, and even your refrigerator, not to mention all the industrial machinery, would all grind to a halt without effective lubrication. The global industry in lubricants is said to be worth $60 billion annually.

Unfortunately, lubricants based on mineral oils tend to thicken relatively quickly, so oil needs to be changed regularly, leading to waste. While companies like Mobil have made great progress in formulating advanced lubricants – like the synthetic-based, high-performance gear and bearing oil Mobil SHC 630 – tuning the molecular structure of mineral base oils can be a challenging endeavour.

An associate director at CCEI, Basu Saha, indicated that catalysis may be essential to overcoming this limitation by synthesizing new oils with tuneable properties for the base:

“Catalysts are used to accelerate chemical reactions and create new materials. 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.”

Although there is still considerable work to be done, in addition to being sourced renewably, the increased tuneability of base oils could lead to the development of new lubricants that require fewer additives, further decreasing the environmental footprint.

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