Are Bio-Based Lubricants Worth the Extra Cost?

“Are bio-based oils worth the extra cost to switch lubricants? Are they as effective as mineral base oil and synthetic lubricants?”

The vast majority of lubricants used in industrial applications are formulated with mineral base oils. The remaining are synthetic base oils and a small percentage of vegetable- or animal-based oils. While mineral oils are effective and often well-priced, their environmental impact can be problematic, particularly when it is estimated that up to 50 percent of lubricants end up in the environment. Most synthetics are challenged by their lack of biodegradability as well.

Bio-based lubricants, defined as those that are biodegradable and derived from a renewable source, are frequently vegetable-based. They may have other sources as long as they meet the biodegradable and renewable requirements. Bio-based lubricants typically are costlier than mineral base oils, but in many cases the additional cost can be justified if there are known environmental conditions where a spill could cause a serious issue. Therefore, a bio-based lubricant should be considered for any application where leaks and spills are a real possibility and containment is not easily achieved.

Selecting a bio-based lubricant should not be about whether it is worth the extra cost, but rather an obligation mandated by regulations such as those from state or federal agencies. These requirements may also come from specifications defined by the equipment manufacturer, especially if the machine is still under warranty or operated in public areas.

From a lubrication perspective, mineral and synthetic base oils tend to have the upper hand with performance, but that doesn’t mean that bio-based lubricants perform poorly. They can offer some advantages with lubricity, viscosity index and flash point. However, there are drawbacks. For instance, bio-based lubricants generally don’t perform well in cold temperatures and have viscosity limitations.

Nevertheless, bio-based oils should not be disregarded because of their higher price. They can be excellent lubricants and are often undervalued, primarily because of the marketability of low-price mineral oils and the unique advantages of synthetic base oils.

When choosing a lubricant, it is best to consider price last. First, take note of the performance characteristics, compatibility for the application and other key factors, such as biodegradability. Even with a higher price, bio-based lubricants may be the preferred option if they meet the primary requirements. Regardless, when there is the possibility of a leak into the environment or biodegradability is required by governmental regulations, a bio-based lubricant would be the right choice.

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