Powerful machines with moving parts — your car's engine or your tractor’s hydraulic pump, for instance — almost always require lubricants. Today, most of those lubricants are made of so-called "base oil" that's blended with additives to boost performance.

The U.S. demand for additives, already at nearly 2 billion pounds a year, is expected to increase 2 percent annually for the next five years. That projection might attract new interest in a process, developed several years ago by USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist Sevim Z. Erhan and her colleagues, for making additives from plants instead of petroleum.

These bio-based additives would be suitable for use in formulating greases, engine oils, and hydraulic, transmission and drilling fluids, according to Erhan.

The additives could be made from the predominant fat molecules — triglycerides — in natural oils of familiar crops like soybean, corn or canola, or from lesser-known plants like camelina, crambe or pennycress.

Besides providing a potentially profitable market for farmers, the fully biodegradable, new-age additives offer other benefits and, to date, no downside. Since they're fully biodegradable, proper disposal is fast, easy and inexpensive. They can be used with either bio-based or conventional lubricants. The additives meet all the standard criteria for a top-notch, antifriction, antiwear additive–namely, impressive viscosity and liquidity, high flashpoint, and stability despite temperature extremes.

In small-scale laboratory tests to evaluate wear and friction, the plant-oil additives performed as well as or better than commercial petroleum-based additives.

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Source: USDA-ARS