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How lubricant choice contributes to sustainability

Jan. 5, 2022
As fleets, truck OEMs move toward a cleaner future, engine oil specification presents an opportunity to improve efficiency

Throughout this century, “sustainability” has evolved from something of a niche interest for global brands to an absolute necessity.

Take, for example, research conducted last year by the National Retail Federation and the IBM Institute for Business Value, which concluded that sustainability has reached a “tipping point.” Per the report:

As consumers increasingly embrace social causes, they seek products and brands that align with their values. Nearly six in 10 consumers surveyed are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. Nearly eight in 10 respondents indicate sustainability is important for them. And for those who say it is very/extremely important, over 70% would pay a premium of 35%, on average, for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible.

For the retail brands that this research highlights, there is a trickle-down effect at play. Sustainability is about more than developing more recyclable or eco-friendly products and services. It’s about how they conduct their business more sustainably from top to bottom. Sourcing raw materials and managing supply chains efficiently are a major part of doing so—and it’s here that the trucking industry, including fleet and logistics suppliers, and OEMs responsible for developing efficient vehicle technology, has an important role to play.

For OEMs in particular, the pressure comes from multiple angles. End users want their trucks to deliver new levels of efficiency, all while global governments continue to ramp up regulatory efforts to dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades. For example, phase two of the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Fuel Efficiency Standards becomes effective in model year 2021, phasing in through 2027. Each phase will require larger gains in fuel economy and greater emissions reductions. It’s a time of significant change—one that will require innovation at every level of vehicle design to navigate successfully.

There is one route to developing highly efficient trucks to satisfy a range of converging sustainability demands that should not be overlooked: high-performing, low-viscosity engine oil technology. Here’s how it can be an effective tool for OEMs, and the fleets they supply, pursuing heightened sustainability goals in the future.

Effective improvement

Lower-viscosity lubricants’ impact on fuel economy has been clear for some time, and it’s part of the demand that led to the American Petroleum Institute introducing the FA-4 service category (in addition to CK-4) in 2016. According to “Trucking Efficiency Confidence Report: Low-Viscosity Engine Lubricants,” a joint report from the North American Council for Freight Efficiency and Carbon War Room, the benefits are clear: “Class 8 over-the-road fleets can realistically expect fuel savings in the range of 0.5% to 1.5% by switching from [CK-4] 15W-40 to 5W/10W-30 engine oil.” FA-4 certified lubricants can bring even further benefits. “The savings from switching to the fuel-efficient FA-4 variant … can be expected to add a further 0.4% to 0.7% of increased fuel efficiency,” according to the report.

The benefits of greater fuel economy can translate further toward greater sustainability. Consider bulk carriers who are responsible for transporting heavy loads. Bulk transportation—involving trucks that are fully loaded with liquid and dry bulk cargoes—generates much lower greenhouse gas emissions per ton. Additionally, bulk transporters tend to travel longer distances, so are less likely to be able to utilize alternative technologies, like electrified vehicles, to offer efficiency advantages. Lubricants that can help deliver fuel economy benefits offer an opportunity to save costs and drive greater sustainability.

Taken across the lifetimes of heavy-duty vehicles, which may see more than a million miles on the road before being taken out of service, FA-4 could contribute to a 10- to 12-ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from a vehicle projected across an entire fleet. The numbers can add up to significantly lower environmental impact, and can add value in what OEMs are offering to their customers.

Uncompromised protection

As well as fuel economy gains, low-viscosity lubricant technology has been proven to deliver the same protective characteristics as higher-viscosity lubricants, like 15W-40.  

In certifying the lubricants, an FA-4 formulation must pass the same tests as a CK-4 lubricant. Additionally, Lubrizol’s team field-tested API FA-4 lubricants in real-world units from a variety of OEMs, generating more than 75 million miles of data. Trucks tested include newer models designed to be filled with FA-4 lubricants, as well as older-model trucks where FA-4 is not specified by the manufacturer. In each of these cases, the data remained clear: Engines, old and new, are demonstrating expected levels of wear at up to 500,000 miles of service, while demonstrating significant fuel economy improvement.

By providing the highest levels of protection, FA-4 formulations can help ensure that heavy-duty trucks work for an extensive period of time and therefore won’t need to be replaced frequently. Trucks that can deliver longer service to end users, with the specified use of FA-4 lubricants, can be a key part of any OEM’s sustainability story.

Efficiency enabled

In addition to enabling higher fuel economy and durability for today’s engines, FA-4 lubricants—and the lower-viscosity formulations set to succeed them in the future—are complementary to some of the more innovative engine design changes that are enabling higher levels of efficiency.

For example, engine combustion is a key area to improve efficiency. To achieve gains here, temperatures around the pistons have become hotter, requiring enhanced deposit control performance from engine lubricants. Pistons are cooled by squirting oil through the narrow passages of a cooling jet to the underside of the piston. Efficient, effective cooling can be achieved by designing those cooling jets to be used with a low-viscosity lubricant. However, it is essential that this engine then be filled with low-viscosity lubricant throughout its life. Higher-viscosity lubricants may not achieve the appropriate flow levels, which can lead to a viscous cycle of deposit buildup and increased heat levels. Delivering a high rate of lubricant flow to the pistons allows for more effective control of heat levels and deposits, helping the engine achieve the optimum levels of efficiency. FA-4 lubricants can inherently deliver those high rates of flow vs. thicker formulations.

Sustainability—for OEMs, their customers, and the global supply-chain stakeholders who depend on them—will become increasingly important in the near- and long-term future, as more challenging regulatory goals are set by government bodies and market expectations.

Put simply, selecting and specifying FA-4 lubricants is a readily available and effective method to contribute to those goals today.

Mike Sutton is a corporate technical fellow for the Lubrizol Corporation