Using plant-derived oils like soybean oil as a form of lubrication is nothing new to companies that operate and maintain machinery. The idea of using soy as a replacement for petroleum has been around for decades and is becoming increasingly important due to volatile petroleum prices and heightened concern with dependency on foreign sources of petroleum. Soy also adds natural lubrication to machinery and enhances engine performance.

The United Soybean Board (USB) and the soybean checkoff, a research and promotion program funded by U.S. soybean farmers, recognizes the importance of developing soy-based lubricants. USB works to fund and promote industrial uses for soy that inspire the creation of innovative soy-based products and technology. U.S. soybean farmer funding enables numerous companies to take part in the research, development and promotion of new uses for soy in an effort to help develop soy-based products such as lubricants, plastics, coatings and solvents.

Besides the economic benefits of shifting demand away from foreign petroleum by using soy-based lubricants, performance issues and environmental concerns are some of the most important factors driving manufacturer and consumer interest in the switch to soy and other biobased intermediates.

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Figure 1. Renewable Lubricants' Food-grade Lubricant

The Nuts and Bolts Behind Soy Lubricants
Soy-based lubricants are positioned to be a formidable competitor for traditional petroleum lubes. They are safer for workers and for the environment. Most lubricants enhanced with soy oil biodegrade once they are released into the environment, making them ideal for areas where machinery is used outdoors.

So how do soy-based lubricants stack up against the competition? Petroleum lubes aren't the only competition out there for soy. Soybean oil will continue to compete with other vegetable oils and synthetic lubricants for a share of the emerging renewable lubricant market. The following lubricants are some of the more proven product areas incorporating soy:

All-purpose lubricants - Lubricants are used in a variety of applications in both consumer and industrial venues. One all-purpose soy-based lubricant that the checkoff has supported is Glysol PenTrate, a spray-on lubricant.

Developed by Workcell Systems Inc., Glysol PenTrate has a better carrying ability than petroleum-based counterparts. It is naturally hydrophobic, offering long-lasting protection and providing a thin film, coating metal products to fight against rust and corrosion.

Another all-purpose lubricant that has been developed with support from U.S. soybean farmers is Naturelube 700, a soy-based lubricant manufactured by BioPlastics Polymers. This lubricant is suitable as a base for rust- and corrosion-preventive formulations to protect metals against corrosive effects of such things as salt, moisture and weather.

Coefficient of friction is considered a critical property for lubricating oils, and results indicate NatureLube 700 has exceptionally low values of the friction coefficient even under heavy loads. The oxidative stability of NatureLube 700 is also similar to high-performance synthetic lubricants.

Hydraulic Fluids - Industrial hydraulic fluids represent a 222-million-gallon market in the United States. The use of environmentally acceptable hydraulic fluids has already taken off in Europe due to environmental regulations and consumer pressure.

Environmental Lubricants Manufacturing (ELM) is one company that has been active in the development of soy lubricants. ELM has produced numerous soy-based lubricants, including SoyFluid Hydraulic All Season. The soy-based hydraulic fluid is a premium biodegradable, biobased oil formulated for use in industrial hydraulic systems operating throughout all seasons. The product also offers stable viscosity through a wide operating temperature range with a viscosity index of 214. The lubricant has a pour point of -36°C as well as a high flash of 208°C for increased safety.

Bar and Chain Oils - This is an important area for soy-based lubricants because many companies that manage outdoor industrial operations seek a safe lubricant for workers who use cutting tools such as chain saws. This is a total-loss or once-through application in which all of the oil is lost into the environment. SafeLube is a division of Gemtek Products that manufactures a Bar, Chain and GP Oil suitable for use in chain saws and other forest-cutting machines. This lubricant adheres to metal due to its polar nature and also works to prevent the formation of rust.

Food-grade Lubricants - Bio food-grade lubricants are a specialty market for soy-based lubricants. The use of soy oil is exceptionally useful in industrial equipment applications that may come into direct contact with food. Renewable Lubricants, Inc. produces several food-grade lubricants designed for food-safe use in applications such as hydraulic fluid and gear oil.

Biodiesel - There has been a lot of talk about renewable fuels, and biodiesel is a big part of the collective discussion. A major benefit of soy-based biodiesel is that the fuel increases lubricity in engines, causing longer engine life due to less wear throughout years of use. Also, no engine modifications are needed to operate with the product.

Soy biodiesel is competitively priced. A federal tax incentive can make it more affordable than ever, and as more people choose soy biodiesel, more suppliers and distributors are offering it.

Soy biodiesel is safer to use, handle and store than petroleum-based fuels. It can be used year-round, and consumers should follow the same cold-weather handling and storage practices as with conventional diesel. Soybean oil can be used as neat fuel and blended at certain percentages with petroleum. It's dependent on user preference.

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Figure 2. Soy-based Hydraulic Fluid Used in Elevators at the Statue of Liberty

Market Potential of Soy Lubricants
One market where biobased lubricants stand to show a significant advantage is in areas where environmentally sensitive products must be used. An example of this is at Yellowstone National Park, where park officials have converted nearly all of the park's maintenance equipment to biobased products to help preserve the park's natural environment.

In addition to national parks, other government-run facilities, such as military bases, could become a large market for soy-based lubricants. Government regulatory pressure on manufacturers to purchase green products is likely to speed the adoption of such products by government-run facilities. One example of this is Executive Order 13101, which instructs federal agencies to use environmentally preferable, biobased products.

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Figure 3. Biodiesel Pump

Where Do Soy Lubricants Go from Here?
The future of soybean oil use as a lubricant looks promising. These lubricants offer several attractive advantages when compared to oil lubricant basestocks, such as higher viscosity index, lower evaporation loss and a potential to enhance lubricity, which can potentially lead to improved energy efficiency.

Soybean oil does have performance limitations, particularly with respect to thermal, oxidative and hydrolytic stability, but these problems can be alleviated through modifications in the oil for many applications.

Continued regulatory pressures are expected to increase the use of biobased lubricants in the United States during the next five to 10 years. Soybeans in particular have the ability to step up to help meet this new demand in the United States.

The price of soy is traditionally more stable than the price of petroleum. This makes soy-based lubricants an attractive choice for manufacturers looking to avoid potential petroleum shortages and price increases.

Renewable oils are becoming more desirable as a source of lubrication. In addition to the accessibility and price advantages of U.S. soy, this could mean a bright future for soy in the alternative lubricant market.

About the United Soybean Board
USB is made up of 64 farmer-directors who oversee the investments of soybean checkoff. The New Uses Committee within USB is entrusted with funding the development of soy-based products in the following target markets: lubricants, plastics, coatings and printing inks, adhesives and solvents. To learn more about USB, visit www.soynewuses.org.