The popularity of synthetic engine oil has grown as an alternative to conventional mineral oils. Industry reports indicate the synthetic oil growth rate to be three times greater than that of mineral oil. The benefits of high performance synthetic and semi-synthetic oils have resulted in its adoption into both the automotive and industrial markets.
Wikipedia defines synthetic oil as “a lubricant consisting of chemical compounds that are artificially made. Synthetic lubricants can be manufactured using chemically modified petroleum components rather than whole crude oil, but can also be synthesized from other raw materials. The base material, however, is still overwhelmingly crude oil that is distilled and then modified physically and chemically.”
Wikipedia defines semi-synthetic oils or synthetic blends as “a mixture of mineral oil and synthetic oil, which are engineered to have many of the benefits of full synthetic oil without the cost.”
Mineral oil is derived from crude oil extracted from oil wells. The crude oil goes through a complex distillation process during which different fractions such as petrol, diesel, paraffin and oil, each with independent characteristics, are drawn off. Mineral oil has natural contaminants which can reduce its performance.
The advantages of synthetic motor oil include:
- Better low and high temperature viscosity performance. Allows oil to flow easier at cold engine start-up, reaching and lubricating the moving parts, while also offering protection at higher operating temperatures.
- Synthetic oils have a higher viscosity index (VI) plus better chemical and shear stability.
- Synthetic oils’ resistance to oxidation and thermal breakdown reduces the potential for the oil to sludge. This in-turn allows for extended drain interval, reduced oil waste and a lower carbon footprint
- Because synthetic oils’ molecular structure is more uniform than that of a mineral oil, it allows for smoother and cooler engine operation resulting in more power.
- Synthetic oils can offer improved fuel economy.
The key advantage of semi-synthetic oils or synthetic blends is that they offer some of or similar benefits to synthetic oils but at a lower price.
Industry advancements have led to the development of smaller, more powerful engines and gearboxes which call for high-performance lubricants that offer improved properties, including reduced wear, and increased service life. Innovation in lubricants over the years has been significant, aimed at meeting the needs of original equipment manufacturers (OEM).
The transport sector in Africa is a key consumer of lubricants. But, where more advanced economies are fast-tracking the adoption of synthetic lubricants, the African market is lagging behind. Commercial vehicle demographics show a clear disconnect in terms of engine lubricant quality. There is the continued use of old lubricant technology (API CF-4 & CH-4) in African countries and the continent lags behind the current vehicle requirements of API CI-4 or higher. API CI-4 lubricants were introduced in 2002 and offer superior performance compared to previous categories. The use of monograde oils remains widespread, but on a positive note, multi-grade product use is growing steadily. The high sulphur content of diesel in some countries has also hindered the introduction of newer technology engines, higher quality and specification oils.
Although lagging, African countries and businesses are moving to more environmentally acceptable alternatives, including lower sulphur diesel, reduced emission controls, biodegradable products and, in general, a lowering of their carbon footprint. Synthetic and semi-synthetic oils will play a growing and significant role in this positive journey.
Mineral engine oils meeting API CI-4 and ACEA E7 & E9 specification are readily available and will be around for some time. The higher specification API CJ-4 SAE 15W40 engine oil and semi-synthetic ACEA E4 & E7 SAE 10W40 engine oils are the more common higher tier products used by transport fleets. Lower viscosity synthetic products for both engine and drivetrain are the future. Major oil company brands like Caltex and others have OEM-approved synthetic and semi-synthetic products available to meet the growing demand.