From its humble beginnings over 3000 years ago, lubrication technology has seen many phases of evolution. As it continues to evolve at an ever-increasing rate, base oil performance is making a larger contribution to finished lubricant performance. Turbine oils are perhaps the most dramatic example because they typically contain over 99% base oil.
Early lubrication began with animal fats and oils and slowly evolved to petroleum-based oils. Many generations of refining processes have since improved on Mother Nature. Early processes such as acid treating and solvent extraction improved the quality of base oils by removing some or most of the worst molecules from the oil. Later processes like hydrotreating, catalytic hydrocracking, catalytic dewaxing, and modern wax hydroisomerization transformed feed molecules into molecules with improved lubricating qualities.
Modern wax hydroisomerization, in particular, makes base oils with very low impurities and typically water-white appearance. Now, about one third of all base oils manufactured in North America are of such high quality.
Looking to the future, the trend is toward even higher base oil purity, higher viscosity index (V.I.), lower volatility, and longer life. The distinction between heavily processed mineral oils and traditional “synthetic” oils will continue to blur.
The evolution and future of base oil technology will be discussed in more detail in this paper.