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Biobased Lubricants: Beans to bearings

In the early 1980’s some visionary European specialists, mostly in the agricultural community, began promoting the idea of using biodegradable lubricants. Several countries began using vegetable oils for niche applications like lubricating chainsaws.

A few companies developed hydraulic oils most notably the Mobil EAL 224H was introduced in Europe and was also distributed in the US. In the 1990s, many major US companies began to assign teams of researchers to explore development of biodegradable lubricants with an emphasis on hydraulic fluids. At the time nearly 40 major US companies had research participants in the biodegradable standard committee at ASTM meetings.

In 1991 Deere and Company, in conjunction with The Lubrizol Corporation, introduced a vegetable oil based Universal Tractor Transmission Hydraulic Fluids (UTTHF), called Bio-HyGard based on Canola oil. This was mostly designed for regions of Germany that were expected to mandate the use of biodegradable hydraulic fluids. The US Soybean Growers sponsored university research projects that resulted in the development of the soybean oil version of UTTHF in 1996, at the University of Northern Iowa.

The hypercritical debates in the ASTM committees to determine what would be considered “biodegradable” led to a new direction and a new term was introduced by the United Soybean Board and the United States Department of Agriculture. The term Biobased was created to encourage incorporation of renewable hydrocarbons in lubricants and other products that rely on petroleum. The rationale was that any reduction in mineral oil within a lubricating system would result in lesser environmental impact and less dependence on imported oil. Today, the United Soybean Board and the Biopreferred Program at USDA are two entities that continue to promote the use of biobased materials in lubricants and other products. A massive list of biobased labeled products can be found on the USDA Biopreferred web sites.

Biobased lubricants are the most intuitively fitting tools for reducing friction in machinery that exposes the lubricants to the environment. A fitting example is the rail curve grease application. A quantity of grease is automatically applied to the inside of the railroad tracks that in turn comes in contact with the wheel flange that further carries the grease 5-8 kilometers down the track in each direction. Without this friction reduction activity, the wheel flange would wear thin and the track would round off and lose its curvature resulting in catastrophic derailing.

The lubricant also reduces the noise level and fuel consumption. This application requires the grease to be applied in the same 5-10 kilometers of the track any time the trains travel in that location every day when trains are running. In the US, primarily for freight railroads, an estimated 15 million pounds of rail curve grease is applied annually to the same curves that end up in the ground around the tracks. Figure 1 shows a railroad track with an applicator bar attached to the inside near the gauge face. The lubricant dispenser uses a battery operated pump that is charged by solar cells and runs trouble free year-round applying grease to the tracks.

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