Grease Industry Trends

Sandy Cowan, Citgo Petroleum Corporation

Grease, as it is looked upon today, is a relatively new science. In 1400 B.C., mutton or beef fat was sometimes mixed with lime to reduce the friction in chariot wheels.1 Under the correct conditions, heating lime and fat in oil will form a grease. Modern greases, however, were not commercially available until more than 3,300 years later.

The first grease produced in volume was a calcium soap grease.2 Lithium, barium and calcium complex greases were introduced in the 1930s and 1940s.3 Aluminum complex greases followed in the early 1950s, but modern lithium complex greases did not enter the market until the early 1960s.4

The National Lubricating Grease Institute (NLGI) has collected production data from grease manufacturers since the early 1960s. Some interesting trends can be noted in reviewing this historical data.5


Figure 1.

Grease Production in North America
Grease production in North America is slowly increasing. The growth rate from 1995 to 2005 was approximately seven percent, although some of this apparent growth is due to the inclusion of Mexico's grease production in the 2005 survey. According to a recent government report, the population of the United States is growing at a rate of approximately 0.91 percent.6 Population growth likely contributes to increased consumption and industry growth, therefore increasing the need for grease.

The production of certain thickeners has declined in North America. Sodium soaps are water-soluble and hydrated calcium greases cannot be used above the boiling point of water. These factors limit where certain thickener types can be used, therefore limiting their production.


Figure 2. Greases with Declining Volume in North America (%)*

On the other hand, the production of lithium complex grease has significantly increased. These greases tend to be stable and can be used in a variety of applications. The versatility and good performance of this thickener are likely contributors to its growth in North America.

There has also been an increase in the volume of aluminum complex greases. The food industry often utilizes aluminum complex greases due to their water resistance, high-temperature performance and H-1 capability. Likely contributors to the increased production of aluminum complex grease are an increase in convenience packaging and an increase in the number of fast-food restaurants. Population growth would also increase the need for food production and therefore the need for food-grade greases.


Figure 3.

Grease Production Worldwide
According to the 2005 NLGI Grease Survey, North America reported grease production of 544 million pounds, which is approximately 29 percent of the worldwide grease production. All countries participating in the 2005 survey reported a total production of 1.9 billion pounds of grease.


Figure 4.

North America reports a higher percentage of aluminum complex, calcium sulfonate, lithium complex, polyurea and clay greases in comparison to the international data. Conversely, the worldwide production reports higher percentages of hydrated calcium, conventional lithium and sodium soap grease. This could be due to a difference in equipment lubrication demands in various parts of the world. In general, high-speed or heavily loaded equipment can generate more heat, which creates an increased need for greases with higher dropping points. In addition, higher labor costs in North America factor into the need to extend relubrication intervals and therefore increase the need for a grease that can function for longer periods of time.


Figure 5.

Grease Production by Country or Region
Upon looking at the grease production by country or region, it can be seen that North America and Europe report the largest grease production, followed by China, Japan, India/Indian subcontinent, the Pacific/Southeast Asia, the Caribbean/Central/South America, and Africa/Middle East.


Figure 6.

Grease Growth by Region
The largest growth in grease production over the past decade based on the NLGI Grease Survey took place in China, which had a 106 percent increase. Production in Japan and India also increased with a growth of 24 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Thickener Popularity by Region
Conventional lithium is the most popular grease type in all regions, but leads lithium complex only by one percent in North America. Polyurea production accounted for a higher production percentage in Japan than in other regions. Hydrated calcium grease accounted for the second highest production in China, the Pacific region and in the Caribbean region.

Table 1. 2005 Top 4 Grease Types by Country/Region (%)


1-4. NLGI Lubricating Grease Guide, Fifth Edition. 2006

5. NLGI Annual Grease Survey. 2005


Editor's Note
In figures 1 through 3, NLGI survey data for 2005 includes USA, Canada, and Mexico. 1995 data includes USA and Canada only. Prior years are for the United States only. Survey data may vary based on revision date.


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