Witham Group walks CVW through what is changing in the lubricant world and how product shortages and supply have been affected by COVID.
Manufacturing, or ‘blending’ as it is referred to in the industry is (as the name suggests) the blending of raw materials to achieve an in specification final finished fluid.
These raw materials commonly consist of base oils, anywhere between 99% and 75%, and additive components that can come as packages with a predefined treat-rate or as individual components. The purpose of these additives is to make sure the finished lubricant meets all the chemical & physical requirements of the desired specification. The additives are most often:
- Viscosity Modifiers – allow the finished product to be a multigrade PPD (Pour Point Depressant) which enables the finished fluid to operate at a far lower temperature than it could otherwise.
- Base Number Boosters – enhance the lubricant’s ability to absorb and neutralise acidic compounds
- Antioxidants – resist the oxidation of the fluid whilst in service
- Anti-Foam – reduces the surface tension of the fluid so entrapped air is released quickly, particularly useful in hydraulic fluids.
Traditionally, the most popular way to blend lubricants was a process called ‘batch blending’ which involves a metal circular blending vessel with a heat source and a stirrer. The base oils are introduced into the vessel and heated to around 40°C depending on the product.
Once the base oils reach temperature, the heated additives are then introduced and mixed in by the stirrer for the prescribed time, around 45-60 mins, the entire process taking, on average, two to three hours.
The product would then be QC tested and either transferred to bulk storage or left to cool before being filled into various pack sizes. To make larger batches you would simply buy a bigger vessel, longer stirrer and basically upscale the process however this obviously reaches its limit. Care must also be taken not to damage certain raw materials with excessive heat so this needs to be carefully monitored with reliable temperature control.
Another method for lubricant blenders needing to manufacture large quantities is inline blending. Without getting into the technicalities this type of technique is a continuous blending process that precisely meters the ingredients into a pipe and produces a finished product.
These two mainstream methods both have their place and are often used together where smaller blends are batch blended and larger ones put through the inline process. Another less common blending method is the use of air to mix the components together where a controlled stream of air is used which moves through the product from beneath and agitates it producing a fully mixed product.
All methods have their benefits and drawbacks, and this can depend on the individual blenders size, product portfolio, and production plant layout. Batch blending is probably still the most popular method given it has been around the longest but, as the number of blenders decrease and the remaining ones grow, this looks likely to evolve.
A step forward
Throughout the world lubricant manufacturing is typically a very high energy use, high cost and time restrictive process. As previously explained, base oils are heated to various temperatures while additives are ‘blended’ to form the different viscosities and types of lubricant products for engine oils, hydraulic oils, gear oils, brake fluids, industrial and household oils, and grease products. The necessity to improve both the time, cost and environmental impact of the lubricant manufacturing industry, has driven Witham Group, manufacturers of lubricants since 1921, to develop an innovative new process.
“We are extremely proud to have developed a unique blending system based on the use of Ultrasound. ‘Blendtek’, as we call the new process, removes the need for base oils and product formulas to be heated up for long periods of time using traditional gas energy,” explains Nigel Bottom, Managing Director of Witham Group.
As manufacturers of a huge range of different viscosity lubricants, this new technique enables Witham to blend thousands of tonnes of products using energy from solar panels and a simple 13A plug, saving time, energy, and drastically reducing the company’s carbon footprint.
To blend 10 tonnes of product now takes less than half an hour and previously the same blend would have taken several hours to complete. This new ground-breaking concept has been tried and tested, independently audited and reviewed.
To evaluate the savings to the environment since 2016, Witham has saved over 20,200 tonnes of carbon and heated the equivalent of over 111 homes in the UK for a year. Its gas consumption has been reduced by 77% and now in 2021 we are sharing these results and the new ultrasound way of blending with the worldwide lubricant industry.
The company continues to expand its Blendtek technology and is in talks with many other businesses to offer this incredible new process to other companies throughout the UK and abroad.
Nigel Bottom continues: “This exciting breakthrough is all about changing the carbon usage of lubricant manufacturing in the first place. So many environmental schemes and businesses look to offset their carbon use, with investment schemes and climate protection projects. We have instead, come up with a way that prevents high use of energy and fuels in the first place.”
“We are immensely proud of this carbon neutral manufacturing innovation, and we believe we are the first company in the world to blend in a carbon neutral process. We are determined to help other blenders improve their own sustainability profiles and improve the oil industry’s reputation with substantial impact.”
He concludes: “We also hope our customers are helped in their own drive to improve the environmental credentials of their supply chain: the lubricants we provide are blended carbon neutrally, the packaging they arrive in is made for recycled materials (30% min), the lorries we deliver the products in are running on lower viscosity oils which are more fuel efficient and reduce CO2 emissions, we offer bulk storage tanks to remove the need for plastic packaging on larger orders of products and we offer a growing range of environmentally sensitive alternative lubricants, low toxic and water based paints that off equal, if not better performance.”
Oil shortages and lubricant price rises
Many workshops may have recently had notification from their lubricant suppliers that product prices are due to increase, despite fuel costs on the forecourts generally falling. But why is this and how has COVID affected global supply?
We operate in a truly global economy, and nothing has illustrated this more than the recent, ongoing raw material shortages. Base oils are in very short supply (both mineral and synthetics) with one of the main reasons being base oils are created as a by-product of crude oil refining.
Oil refining basically takes crude oil from the ground and distils it in different grades to create mainly fuel (petrol and diesel) with other grade products used for heating oils, kerosene (jet fuel), hydrocarbon products for making synthetic rubbers, paints, plastics and then also lubricant based stock oils.
During the global lockdown, travel has greatly reduced both commercially and personally, with many of us working from home and not commuting. There have been very few planes flying so no need for Kerosene, which as an industry is a huge user of fuel.
Demand for fuel, therefore, has fallen dramatically and, subsequently, the global oil companies are simply not producing the fuel due to the huge stockpiles all around the world. As a consequence, base oil production has also been slashed.
The shortage has led to a sharp spike demand and rise in global lubricant costs. Ironically due to the abundance of unused fuel, and a decrease in usage and demand, there has been a fall in fuel prices.
In summary, whilst technology innovations are continuing to develop, fleet operators and workshops will need to ensure their lubricant partner will support them with only the latest and correct oil specifications, products that can help lower emissions and reduce CO2 emissions and finally, ensure that supply of products and environmental credentials are reliable on an ongoing basis.