Synthesizing the future - Energy Factor
Science & technology

Synthesizing the future

Nov. 8, 2016

After World War II, the United States was poised for an economic boom so large that some feared the country would not have enough oil products to keep factories and machines running.

This spurred American oil companies to seek ways to produce lubricants from natural gas and other non-crude resources. The goal was to find a synthetic lubricant that acted just like conventional lubricants produced from crude. The reason was simple: Virtually all engines and machines were dependent on the unique characteristics of conventional lubricants. Although several companies had experimented with developing synthetic lubricants before that point, there either wasn’t enough demand for a synthetic lubricant, or the synthetic product lacked the consistency and performance improvements of conventionally-produced lubricants.

An amazing discovery

Two Socony Vacuum Oil researchers made a breakthrough on the journey to synthetic lubricants, almost by accident. Alexander Sachanen and Francis Seger were attempting to synthesize new additive compounds to improve the performance of conventional lubricants. Their experiment failed to produce the desired results, but curiosity led them in a different direction.

They discovered that one of the compounds possessed very interesting properties. The fluid looked similar to conventional lubricating oils and mixed easily with them. However, the material differed from conventional oils in two key ways.

First, it outperformed existing lubricants at very high temperatures. Conventional oils become too thin to protect rubbing surfaces above 300 F, but Sachanen and Seger’s discovery was able to keep working at those extreme temperatures.

The compound also flowed well at temperatures as low as -70 F — well below zero — where conventional lubricants thicken and eventually solidify.

One of the scientists noted his findings in his lab book, dated May 18, 1949. That day, the first synthetic poly-alphaolefin (PAO) was invented.

A funny thing happened on the way to market

With the development of large oil fields overseas in the 1950s, crude oil supplies became plentiful, and interest in developing synthetic lubricants waned. The researchers turned to more pressing matters, but not before filing a patent information document describing the invention of PAO.

Seven years later, another visionary would rediscover the potential of PAOs as high-performance synthetic lubricants. R. W. Schiessler was a new research manager at Mobil Oil Corporation and a former Penn State professor who had cataloged all known lubricating compounds.

“I had never seen anything like it,” said Schiessler. “In that lab notebook, I saw a new future for lubrication.” Thus, an intense synthetic-lubricant research program was born at Mobil.

In 1960, Mobil researcher Bill Garwood patented a different process using free-radical polymerization with alpha-olefins to make poly-alphaolefins (PAO). Mobil’s competitor Shell also issued a patent in 1961 using a different reaction method to produce PAO. The trouble was that these methods yielded a wide range of molecular weights, which gave them no additional performance advantage versus the conventional lubricants of that time.

Designer lubricants

Synthetic lubricants differ significantly in composition and performance from conventional lubricants. Conventional lubricants are produced from the crude oil distillation process that separates by boiling point the many different compounds that make up crude.

While this works well for fuels, not every molecule in crude oil makes for a good lubricant. Some break down easily, causing sludge. Others can cause a lubricant to become too thin at high temperatures, or form waxy crystals at low temperatures that make the oil so thick it can stop flowing.

By contrast, synthetics are “designer” fluids, composed of the best lubricant molecules. As a result they perform better at high temperatures, keeping the metal surfaces clean while maintaining the lubricant film. They are virtually wax-free, so the oil keeps flowing at very low temperatures, and they can be tailored to meet a wide range of viscosity requirements.

With all these features, it was clear that synthetics were finally vastly superior to conventional oils. Synthetics looked capable of delivering a massive leap in performance for engines and motors everywhere, just by changing the oil. 

Capturing the vision

There were many possible practical applications for this technology — from performance-boosting motor oils for cars and trucks, to industrial applications for longer-lasting gearboxes, and even military-grade grease for submarines and rocket-guidance systems.

Europe was chosen as the stage for a full-scale introduction of this all-synthetic car engine oil that would improve the reliability of small cars being driven at high speeds on European highways.

Rolled out in 1973, Mobil™ was an instant hit among mechanics and owners of high-performance cars. It piqued the interest of engine builders, who were amazed that simply changing oil could significantly improve engine protection. 

The energy crisis and beyond

In the mid-1970’s the post-war fears in the United States about limited access to crude supplies came true during the energy crisis. Mobil responded by developing the first successful energy-saving motor oil for the American market, based on prior synthetics research.

The result was Mobil 1, a unique synthetic oil formulated specifically to improve fuel economy. Mobil 1 reduced gasoline consumption by 5 percent compared to conventional oils. Eventually premium conventional motor oils were developed that, with newer engine designs would close the gap in fuel savings compared to synthetics. 

New generations of Mobil 1 continue to raise the bar for key performance criteria —high-temperature protection, cold starts and longer engine life. The success of Mobil 1 has demonstrated the continuing value of synthetic lubricants.

Tags: Mobil 1, lubricants, innovation, Green Mobil 1
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