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Engine Oil Suppliers Target Sustainability Amid Broader Push to Reduce Emissions

Katie Pyzyk
 | Special to Transport Topics

As the trucking industry explores zero-emission technologies such as battery-­electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, heavy-duty engine oil suppliers are applying less conspicuous methods of curbing airborne particulate matter and carbon emissions.

Trucking’s major lubricant brands have been introducing formulations aligned with the rising market demand for more environmentally conscious products amid stricter emission regulations and corporate pledges to improve sustainability.

Some of the new engine oils are designed to boost fuel economy and improve the efficiency of emission control systems on modern diesel engines.

In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed its emissions standards and most North American heavy-duty vehicles had to be equipped with a diesel particulate filter, or DPF. Although DPFs reduce emissions, they come with some drawbacks.

“As that DPF fills with what we commonly refer to as ash, it starts robbing the truck of fuel economy performance,” said Shawn Whitacre, senior staff engineer at Chevron Lubricants.

Last year, Chevron released its Delo 600 ADF engine oil that is formulated to 0.4% sulfated ash, outdoing the industry’s 1% limit. The product is designed to reduce DPF clogging and boost fuel economy.

Delo 600 ADF after-treatment system protectant. (Chevron)

“In our testing, we’ve shown that over the life of the component you can enhance the fuel economy of the vehicle by 3% just by using a lower-ash lubricant,” Whitacre said. “That is on top of the advantage that we originally envisioned for this product, which was to extend or eliminate the maintenance associ­ated with the ash cleaning. This is a new dimension to sustainability and fuel economy improvement.”

The American Petroleum Institute replaced CJ-4 oils with the CK-4 and FA-4 categories in February 2016.

The FA-4 oils, formulated with a lower high-temperature, high-shear viscosity, are designed to boost efficiency for the latest diesel engines. Uptake has been slow but is steadily gaining momentum, sources said.

Some of the slow adoption stems from the lack of backward compatibility with older engines. Other factors are legacy customer perception and skepticism.

“There’s a lot of inertia in the maintenance base of thinking ­lower viscosity is going to be more detrimental to the engine in the sense of more wear and more oil consumption. That really isn’t the case,” said Kyle Kress, products director at Phillips 66.

FA-4 provides 1-1.5% fuel efficiency gains, which “doesn’t sound like much, but it is definitely an improvement and a step forward for sustainability,” Kress explained. “If you’re more fuel efficient, you’re emitting a little less carbon dioxide from the vehicle. So the 1.5% fuel savings that we’re talking about with FA-4 is equating to a reduction in CO2 emissions. That’s what’s driving a lot of sustainability approaches.”

Engine maker Detroit is factory-­filling with FA-4 oils. As other manufacturers follow suit, suppliers anticipate that market traction will grow.

“[OEMs are] starting to become more aggressive at pushing the end user to continue using it and take full advantage of the fuel economy improvements,” Whitacre said.

The transportation industry is a key focal point in the broader movement to curb emissions. According to EPA, transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States — contributing more than 29%. Heavy- and medium-­duty trucks account for nearly one-quarter of that.

Congestion on Interstate 5 in Colusa County, Calif. (Caltrans District 3 via Associated Press)

Suppliers Seek Sustainability

Earlier this year, Shell Rotella introduced carbon-neutral versions of existing heavy-duty engine lubricants — T6 Full Synthetic and T5 Synthetic Blend. The company will offset the emissions from these oils and others down the road.

Shell also has a line of electric vehicle lubricants. However, the company realizes that as it has one foot in the door with innovative EV solutions, it must keep the other in the diesel engine territory for the foreseeable future.

“Until scalable solutions are deployed, carbon offsetting programs provide an immediate solution to balance CO2 emissions,” ­Selda Gunsel, Shell Lubricants vice president of global commercial and ­fuels technology, said during a March 25 virtual webinar hosted by Shell Rotella and ACT News. “We are taking a three-step approach: avoid, reduce and then offset carbon ­emissions.”

She added that the diesel engine will continue to be the predominant platform in the oil and lubricant sector for years to come, as it will take time to adopt zero-­emission fleet technologies.

“There’s not a single solution or a silver bullet to achieve the [net-­zero emissions] target,” Gunsel noted. “Solutions will include a range of options.”

Lubricant and fuel suppliers are diversifying their sustainability efforts across their product port­folios. That includes with raw material acquisition, optimizing product transportation for reduced emissions, making production operations more energy efficient and using more recycled content in product packaging.

“[Sustainability] really is driving us as a business when you look across the corporation: at lowering emissions, lowering carbon and how we produce, transport and manufacture our products. We’re looking at it from all fronts of the business, and lubricants is a key piece of that,” said Jason Gerig, Chevron Americas commercial on- and off-highway sector manager.

Earlier this year, Phillips 66 launched its e-Shield line of lubricants for EVs, including system fluid, grease and coolant. Wear protection is still as relevant for EVs as it is for internal combustion engines, Kress said.

But the nascent nature of the heavy-duty EV market means OEMs haven’t yet standardized their vehicle components. That creates a challenge for lubricant suppliers because one fluid won’t necessarily work for multiple OEMs’ EV drivetrains, unlike traditional lubricants in combustion engines. Suppliers anticipate this will contribute to market ­fragmentation.

Lubricant and fuel suppliers are diversifying their sustainability efforts across their product portfolios. (Phillips 66)

“I think there is some standardization that will happen in the next few years. But right now, we’re in such an early stage to be able to support that in the marketplace,” Gerig said.

Adding to the potential for market fragmentation is that lubricant suppliers previously tried adapting combustion-engine fluids for EV applications, but now efforts are turning toward developing dedicated EV lubricants.

“You have to cool the electric motors. Is that with oil or is that coolant?” Whitacre said. “There is a lot of work going on right now to re-examine that and see if there is a more dedicated suite of fluids that is better optimized to protect these engines and improve their performance.”

Another challenge is developing lower-carbon viscosities without compromising performance.

“It’s not always practical to just take additives out,” Whitacre said. “That was inherently the challenge [with Delo 600 ADF]: to put that puzzle together and deliver on a very high-performing oil that meets all of the requirements that we face — both industry and OEM requirements — but does so with 60% less ash.”

While work continues on enhancing product sustainability in existing categories, efforts also are underway to devise a new API lubricant specification that will be implemented by 2027. PC-12 will be designed to meet more stringent emissions standards and new technology requirements. Lubricant advancements intended to meet the increasing number of transportation sustainability efforts only are predicted to increase in the coming years.

“Road freight is nearing a tipping point to decarbonize and it will happen faster than many expect,” Gunsel said.