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What’s the difference between bio-based and biodegradable lubrication?

In recent years, UK legislation has become increasingly focused on protective measures for the environment with both individuals and enterprise owners encouraged to opt for more eco-friendly alternatives wherever possible. Lubrication manufacturers are now working to create products that can still deliver exceptional results while causing the minimum amount of harm to the natural world.

To some extent, green-minded lubricants are still a relatively new concept and many people are not fully aware of exactly what this approach entails. Terms such as “biodegradable” and “bio-based” are often mentioned in product descriptions, but not always understood by those seeking to purchase such solutions for their equipment. In the following sections, we look at this terminology to explain why these are not always properties that are necessarily interchangeable.

Biodegradable lubrication

The term “biodegradable” is defined as a substance that is capable of decomposition via bacteria and other forms of living organism. In terms of lubrication, biodegradability standards describe whether a solution will naturally degrade in time due to inherent properties, and how long any potentially harmful materials such as carbon dioxide will take to degrade.

Biodegradable lubricants are developed and created by examining how our environment will break down and a disperse an oil when it comes into contact with it. On top of this interaction, product researchers also gauge the length of time a lubricant will take to degrade.

Primary degradation is assessed using infrared technology to measure when carbon-hydrogen bonds are reduced, while ultimate degradation analyses how carbon dioxide evolves during the degradation process.

Bio-based lubrication

When lubricants like oils to greases are described as being bio-based, the manufacturer is referring to the origins of its ingredients. Predominantly, this will involve the sustainable raw material used to provide a base stock for the lubricant before any additives are included. Some of the most common organic materials used as a base oil for lubricants are rapeseed, sunflower and soybean. All three of these harvested products produce base stocks that deliver excellent lubricity, viscosity index and flash point properties suitable for requirements, but are usually inferior in terms of oxidation stability, which can lead to early deterioration of an oil.

A lubricant that is bio-based may not necessarily be biodegradable. As mentioned, eco-friendly oils may fall short in some categories and manufacturers may include additives to improve their performance, such as anti-foaming agents and other ingredients, that combat weaknesses. In other cases, natural mineral oils are combined with another synthetic product to form the base oil, although there are synthetic oils capable biodegradability. Finally, there are also some natural bio-based oil that do not break down over time efficiently and are not biodegradable.

Green-minded lubrication solutions

While the use of such eco-friendly oils is not currently widespread, these types of lubrication still find multiple applications in total-loss and specific hydraulics systems, as well as sectors like farming where environmental considerations must be accounted for. Mobile and stationary agriculture equipment typically involves extensive leaking of lubricants into the earth, so ensuring all products used are made with renewable materials, and are biodegradable, is vital.

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