The value of biodegradable lubricants
Biodegradable lubricants have the molecular ability to be degraded biologically (i.e. by the action of biological organisms). Significant innovations have occurred in the biodegradables space translating to products suitable for use in environmentally sensitive areas that perform well in industrial settings.
The evolution of lubricants
Biodegradable lubricants are either synthetic (man-made) or derive from vegetable oils, and degrade significantly faster than mineral oils such as petroleum, reducing rapidly to components that are more readily broken down by natural micro-organisms. The selection of base fluid is critical for a lubricant or grease’s ability to biodegrade. In general, mineral oils tend to be less biodegradable than esters.1 However, not all esters perform equally, with ester type and branching causing significant variations in biodegradability.
How do biodegradable lubricants stack up?
Biodegradable lubricants made from natural vegetable oils, such as rapeseed or sunflower seed, have come on a long way in the last two to three years. Some challenges do remain, and biodegradable lubricants still need to be monitored in use as their service life can vary compared to mineral oils, depending on the type and application. However, more innovation in this space could mean synthetic ester-based lubricants can provide extended service life compared to mineral oils, which may go a long way to offset their initial cost.2
Industry applications for biodegradables
In industry, biodegradable lubricants are evolving to the point where they can be used in almost every system that a conventional lubricant is traditionally found. At present, biodegradables are particularly relevant in the following applications:
- Total Loss systems (chainsaw lubricants, corrosion preventatives, mould release oils)
- Hydraulics for excavators working in environmentally sensitive sites
- Water pumps and grease applications where release into the environment is unavoidable
More recently, the introduction of smaller, faster and more efficient equipment operating at higher speeds, temperatures, stresses and pressures, accelerated the trend towards ever greater performance and even better compatibility, which favours higher quality synthetic (biodegradable) lubricants.
1 Battasby, N. S., Chemosphere, 2000, Vol 42, 1011–1027
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