Industrial machinery, agricultural equipment, transportation vessels, and home applications depend on lubricants; however, they leave a heavy environmental footprint. Common lubricants, oils, greases, and emollients typically consist of mineral, or petroleum, base oils — often up to 90 percent by weight. These mineral base oils are highly volatile and tend to thicken quickly, which means that lubricants need to be replaced often, generating waste.
Synthetic base oils are key to efficient lubricants because of their lubrication properties, stability, and suitability for extreme temperatures compared to their regular mineral-base oils counterparts. Producing them with tunable (i.e. customizable) structures and specifications can be both challenging and expensive. This lack of tunability creates a need for mixing the base oil with several expensive additives, increasing the environmental footprint of lubricants.
A strategy was developed to create renewable lubricant base oils efficiently from non-food biomass — things like wood, switchgrass, and other sustainable organic waste — and fatty acids, which are present in used vegetable oils and animal fat. The product is a high-performance material with tunable properties.
Catalysts are used to accelerate chemical reactions and create new materials. For lubricants, catalysis allows researchers to not only synthesize new and existing structurally similar base oils from bio-based feedstock, but lends extensive control over the molecules’ weight, size distribution, branching, and specifications.
Produced base oils are suitable for a wide range of existing applications without requiring large amounts of additives in the lubricant formulation.