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Sliding into the World of Bio-greases

      In keeping with the public demand for sustainability and increasing concern for products that protect, or reduce the amount of harm to the, environment lubricant suppliers have begun seriously employing the use of a diverse panoply of bio-products. Included in this trend, are bio-greases which degrade into simple substances not detrimental to the environment and are, at least in some cases, even based on renewable raw materials. These lubricating greases are especially tailored to those applications where there is a great possibility of product seeping into the natural environment. Bio-greases have been in existence for quite a long interval without being able to fully realize their potential and proper place in the grease market.

      Bio-grease is also known as an environmentally-acceptable lubricant (EAL). This apt terminology is used to denote lubricants which have successfully achieved standards set for biodegradability, toxicity and bioaccumulation potential. They are likely to have little or no impact on the aquatic environment compared to conventional lubricants. Whereas, lubricants which are hypothesized to have positive environmental properties, but have yet to be proven to meet these high standards, are known as environmentally-friendly lubricants (EFL). This is a bit of a misnomer, since they are not actually environmentally-friendly, but are hypothesized to pose a minimal impact on the natural environment.

      Bio-greases are particularly well-suited for the lubrication of forestry machinery, construction vehicles, rail curve, rail flange and marine applications. In all the aforementioned examples, there exists a clear loss-lubrication situation where the lubricating grease eventually ends up in either soil or water. Currently the market contains several high-performance bio-greases; however, the produced volume remains scanty.

      As it stands now, there are obviously some huge opportunities for the category of product. This begs the question, then, of why there is such resistance to break into the various market segments when it comes to bio-greases. The answer is not an easy one to parse and rests on several issues which impede the growth of the market share of bio-products in the industry. While some are genuine difficulties that must be grappled with, others are merely holdovers from an old paradigm that need to be put aside.

      Some issues which impede  the pathway to bio-greases’ mainstream viability pertain to their performance level, perhaps, not always being sufficiently up to par so as to justify the cost of employing these EAL’s and EFL’s, as well as the fact that  legislation doesn’t favor the use of these alternative lubricants.

      The efficacy of bio-greases is usually highly reliant on the specific base fluid utilized, and the general consensus of bio-lubricants has been that they are low-performing products, which isn’t always the case, and is usually only a major factor where vegetable oils are employed. This was typically what bio-lubricants were based on in the past. These products often had inferior performance in comparison to equivalent mineral oil-based greases. Another problem was that they were prone to age hardening. The comparison is not a perfect one though, since the main factor at that time was biodegradability as opposed to top performance under, for instance, a vast temperature span. However, they still maintain a valid place in this niche market segment.

      Today, most modern bio-greases are formulated with different biodegradable synthetic esters which are expensive and since the majority of a grease formulation consists of oil, the ester is a major contributor to the product’s cost. Customers are often reluctant to pay such a premium solely to have a biodegradable product in their range. The more price competitive vegetable oil-based products are still available but incapable of delivering sufficient in-service performance levels required by certain market demographics which would otherwise be benefited by the use of a biodegradable grease.

      In the event of consumption volumes increasing, lubricating grease manufacturers would then be able to produce bio-greases more economically; but, as it stands now, the bio-grease market is stuck in a stalemate situation which would need to be ameliorated if bio-grease were to gain any true traction as a viable alternative.

      On a final note, an intriguing opportunity for bio-greases has manifested in the last few years due to new legislation: The 2013 Vessel General Permit (VGP) issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The VGP aims to decrease the environmental impact of ships, barges, tugs and other commercial vessels, protecting American coasts, lakes and rivers.

      When it comes to equipment such as pitch propellers, thruster bearing and wire ropes, the VPG points out that “All vessels constructed on or after 19 December 2013 must use an environmentally acceptable lubricant in all oil-to-sea interfaces.” And it continues with “For all vessels built before 19 December 2013, unless technically infeasible, owners/operators must use an environmentally acceptable lubricant in all oil to sea interfaces.” Environmentally-acceptable lubricants are elucidated, according to this document, as biodegradable, non-toxic and not bioaccumulative.

      While bio-greases have several downsides, which will keep them from supplanting more traditional mineral oil-based greases, their environmental benefits and sustainability will certainly secure a place for them as a niche market product to be employed where environmental concerns take precedence over other deciding factors such as cost and efficiency.