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Miller, S., C. Scharf, and M. Miller. 2002. Utilizing new crops to grow the biobased market. p. 26–28. In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

Utilizing New Crops to Grow the Biobased Market

Shari Miller, Curtis Scharf, and Mark Miller


There is broad use of petroleum lubricants and fuels in industry. Applications include; hydraulic equipment, marine applications, two-cycle engine oils, off highway equipment, forestry equipment, chain oils, fuels, and others. Fluids and lubricants have multiple ways to enter the environment. For example hydraulic fluids circulate through systems and are exposed to the environment. Through routine wear, hoses and fittings leak or break and release the lubricant to the environment. Chain saws and outboard motors expel oil into the environment through their inherent design.

There is growing concern regarding the environmental impact and associated costs of lost petroleum based fluids. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates over 2.6 billion L of petroleum enter the environment each year, over half of which is through irresponsible and illegal disposal. Industry experts estimate that 70% to 80% of hydraulic fluids leave systems through leaks, spills, line breakage, and fitting failure. Petroleum is persistent and toxic. It damages living organisms including plants, animals and marine life. In addition, the Coast Guard, EPA, and local governments are increasing the range of responsibility of lubricant releases including significant fines and clean up costs.

“Environmentally friendly” or “green” lubricants are being developed to utilize renewable resources that will degrade rapidly upon contact with the environment. There is a range of definitions being utilized to determine environmental preferability, however, there remains no universal definition. It is important to know not only the manufacturers definition of environmental safety or biodegradability, but also the performance limitations of the product. The product must be considered in a total life cycle assessment “from cradle to grave” which includes the performance chemistry, base fluids, manufacturing conditions, ability to be recycled, disposal, and packaging.


The primary driving factor in the use of biodegradable products is the risks and costs associated a petroleum oil spill. While small releases will not result in a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) clean up, large spills will. All petroleum hydraulic fluid spills are “reportable events.” These events involve a great deal of clean-up costs, administrative procedures, and punitive fines that can range from tens of thousands to hundred of thousands of dollars.

While spilling large quantities of biodegradable fluids is still considered under RCRA to be a reportable event, agencies are required to evaluate “biobased oils” differently than petroleum-based oils. As awareness of biodegradable fluid increases, state and federal agencies become more lenient regarding fines and clean-up costs. In fact there are several case studies of equipment releasing several metric tonnes of vegetable-based hydraulic fluid into environmentally sensitive areas with no fines and minimal clean-up expense. In most instances, the operator was able to continue working while clean-up efforts were underway. Since the fluids were biodegradable and non-toxic, there was no long-term negative effect to the ecosystem.

There is mounting pressure from the Federal Government to utilize environmentally preferable products. A major piece of legislation is Executive Order 13101 signed by President Clinton in 1998. E.O. 13101 calls for Federal agencies and federally funded state agencies to purchase Environmentally Preferable, and specifically, biobased “products and or services that have reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services. The comparison may consider any or all phases of the products life cycle.” It charges the head of each executive agency to “develop and implement affirmative procurement programs in accordance with section 6002 of RCRA (42 U.S.C. 6962) and this order and consider use of the procurement tools and methods.”

Another Executive Order, E.O. 12852, provides for “sustainable development.” In the order, sustainable development is broadly defined as “economic growth that will benefit present and future generations without detrimentally affecting the resources or biological systems of the planet.”

While not specifically promoting biobased products, Public Law 104-55 “The Edible Oil Regulatory Reform Act” requires “the head of any Federal Agency to differentiate between fats, oils, and greases of animal, marine, or vegetable origin, and other oils and greases in issuing certain regulations and for other purposes.”


Working together, agronomists and their commercial partners can develop agriculturally based products that will fit the needs of industry both from a market need and a performance perspective. To be successful, early collaboration is essential. There is little advantage in developing vegetable oil or seed oil that does not have a relevant commercial application. The marketing company can have significant input as to the desirable characteristics of the vegetable base fluid. Since the majority of a lubricant or functional fluid is the “base oil” the performance of each respective base oil is important. Performance can be enhanced through the use of chemical additives, however these tend to be costly. The lubricant formulator and marketer will look for the highest total performance i.e. base oil and performance additive, at the lowest cost.

Commercial product formulators are bombarded with many novel base fluids every day. In order to quickly determine the suitability of a base fluid for a particular application, it is essential to be provided baseline data in tests that can be understood and compared to other base fluids. Some areas of particular interest and associated tests are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Baseline data required for evaluation of biobased lubricants.

Property Test
Viscosity ASTM D 446 (40 C, 100 C)
  ASTM D 97 Pour Point
  ASTM D 2983 Brookfield Viscosity
  ASTM D 2270 Viscosity Index
  Oxidative Stability
  ASTM D 2272 RBOT
  ASTM D 942 Test
  Static Oxidation Test
Wear ASTM D 4172 Four Ball Wear
  ASTM D 2782 Timken Wear
  ASTM D 2266 Four Ball Wear
  ASTM D 2282 Hydraulic Pump Test
Other Fatty Acid Distribution
  Additives, Emulsifiers, or Processing Aids
  Total Acid Number (TAN)

For the commercial lubricant marketer, the primary competition is petroleum. Petroleum oils are well known, inexpensive and plentiful. Therefore the base cost comparison is always petroleum oil, which is very inexpensive as compared to most vegetable oils.

Traditional performance weaknesses of vegetable oils are well known and well documented. These include; oxidative stability, low temperature performance, and high temperature stability. Conventional performance additive compatibility is also important.


There are three significant market opportunities for biobased lubricants. The first are applications in which there is a high probability of accidental exposure of the lubricant to sensitive environment. Hydraulic equipment working in the forest or by the water is one example, where at any time a hydraulic hose can rupture or a fitting can leak releasing oil into the environment. It is estimated that a hydraulic system can lose three times its sump size each year. As illustrated in Table 2, a small leak or drip can become quite significant over time.

Table 2. Hydraulic fluid loss over time.

  Loss (L)
Leakage 1 day 1 month 1 year
1 drop/10 seconds 0.4 11.4 152.5
1 drop/second 4.2 127.9 1532.5
3 drops/second 14.0 425.7 5108.4
Stream of drops 90.8 2724.5 32693.8

A second main commercial opportunity exists in total loss lubricants (TLLs). TLLs, by design of the equipment or application, end up virtually entirely in the environment. For example chain lubricant, greases and two cycle oil pass entirely through their system and wind up in the environment. Mold release agents, bar and chain oils, wire rope lubricants, rail and switch lubricants are applied onto surfaces which are outdoors and exposed to the elements. Finally, as previously mentioned, the Federal Government and Federally funded state agencies are required, by Executive Order, to utilize agriculturally based, environmentally preferable products.

There is a wide range of end user markets utilizing environmentally preferable products. They typically are willing to pay the higher cost for a biodegradable and non-toxic product to avoid the costs associated with an oil release. Some of these markets are; turf care and landscape management, off-road equipment, forestry and forest fire fighting, agriculture and farming, marine construction, amusement, and sports and recreation. The sports and recreation category is unique in that the environmental characteristics are less important and the performance benefits of vegetable-based oils is the primary interest. The best commercial estimates indicate that over 75% of bio-based lubricants are hydraulic fluids. The breakdown is indicated in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Commercial uses of biobased products.


There is a growing need for biobased industrial products. Currently, there are a variety of commercially available products primarily utilizing a small number of vegetable oils such as rapeseed, and soybean. There are many opportunities to utilize new, novel, and improved base fluids that can address the requirements of commercial formulators. These needs are reduced costs, improved oxidative stability, improved high temperature stability, and improved low temperature fluidity. The way to improve the probability of commercial success in any new vegetable oil endeavor is to involve a commercial partner early, to provide them with preliminary test data they understand, to make sample quantities of oil available for testing, and to support their internal testing and validation costs with research funds.