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Fundamentals of Grease

When man first invented the wheel there was a need for lubrication, and through the ages as
technology advanced lubrication has kept pace.

Origin of Grease Use

We know for a fact that as early as 1400 BC, grease made of a combination of calcium and
animal fat was used to lubricate chariot wheels. However, it was not until after 1859 with the
discovery of oil, that grease as we know it today made its appearance.

Today, grease are employed extensively in the industrialised world in many thousands of
varied applications both simple and sophisticated.

What is Grease?
The ASTM states that "a lubricating grease is a solid to semi-solid product of dispersion of a
thickening agent in a liquid lubricant", and adds that. "other ingredients imparting special
properties may be included".
In other words a grease consists of a thickener plus oil plus additives.

Advantages of Grease
First, grease is usually preferable when the design of the device being lubricated - such as a
rolling element bearing or gear set - make it impossible to avoid oil leakage which may
contaminate goods being produced or create a safety hazard.

Then, there are situations where high operating temperature precludes the use of ordinary oils.
In some cases synthetic oils may be used; however, often times greases are best.

Further, grease may be used to lubricate a bearing where accessibility is difficult or the unit will
operate for a long period of time between servicing.

When the speed of the device is so slow, and the load so high, it is possible that
an "oil wedge" will not form. So grease thus provided an effective metal - from -
metal separation.

The inherent consistency of grease affords good sealing action. This makes it effective in
dusty areas where parts may be exposed, as in earth-moving equipment.

The same sealing action can protect machine parts from rust because it excludes their
exposure to moisture.
Finally, the methods by which grease can be applied directly to the lubrication point are often
less complicated and less costly than with a fluid.

Disadvantages of Grease
Conversely, one must recognise that grease can possess certain disadvantages. Since it does
not flow or circulate like oil, it is not as effective in dissipating heat.

The immobility of grease also mean that it can't flush out contaminants as readily as oil.

Furthermore, some greases tend to undergo certain structural changes with age. Some may
lose their oil content and become hard and in other conditions, a grease may become soft and
lose its structure because of vibration, moisture, duration in storage, bleeding etc.

Composition of Grease
A lubricating grease is made up of three basic components -

 Soap Thickeners - any material which, in combination with the selected fluid will
produce a grease structure.
 Fluid Lubricant - any fluid that has lubricating properties.
 Additives and Modifiers - these represent any additives or modifiers that are used to
impart special properties or modify exisiting ones.
Oil Thickeners Additives
 Oxidation Inhibitors
 Rust and corrosion
 Extreme pressure agents
 Pour point depressants
 Lubricity or friction
 Mineral  Soap modifiers
 Synthetic  Non-Soap  Dyes/pigments/fillers

Grease Thickener
A grease thickener (soap) is a compound made by a chemical reaction called saponification
between an alkali and a fat.

Saponification is the reaction of alkali metal and fatty acid is fundamental to the
manufacture of soap type greases.
For this chemical process to occur the alkali and fat are combined in a reaction vessel under
predetermined pressure and temperature conditions. A soap is consequently formed along
with water. The water can be vented off.

The grease thickener is the component which makes the difference between a grease and a
liquid lubricant.

Three prerequisites of a thickener material are:

 Insoluble in the fluid being thickened.

 Finely divided.
 Larges surface area.

There are two classifications of thickeners, soap and non-soap. Soap thickeners are selected
in most applications as they are more cost effective and also possess an inherent lubricity.
Soap thickened grease are classified by type of alkali metal.

Types of alkali:
 Lithium
 Calcium
 Sodium
 Aluminium
 Barium

Fat Type (Acids)

Common fats used in grease manufacture are derived by rendering the fatty material from
vegetable or animal tissue. Fats (which are long chain fatty acids) can range from liquids to
solid materials.

Various types of fats rendered from beef tallow are -

 Myristic
 Palmitic
 Stearic
 Oleic

Types of Thickeners
There are four main classifications of grease manufactured today.

Classifications of Grease
 Simple Normal Soaps -Grease from a reaction of alkali with a typical
commercial available mix of fats, for example Lithium and Calcium greases.
 Mixed Alkali Soaps - Greases from saponification of one fat mix with two or
more alkalis.
 Complex Soaps - Grease from saponification of two or more widely
dissimilar fats by polyvalent alkalis. Lithium complex greases are the most
common example here.
 Non-Soap - Grease are made from specially treated clays or silicas like
bentonite, while organic non-soaps use polymers like teflon.

Fluid Lubricant Types

1. Mineral Oil
The second main component used in making a grease is the fluid.

Grease made with mineral oils provide satisfactory performance in most automotive and
industrial applications.

The types of mineral oils used are usually -

 Paraffinic
 Naphthenic
Bitumen is often used for open gear type applications.

2. Synthetic Fluids
In very low or high temperature applications, or in applications where the temperature may
vary over a wide range, grease made with synthetic fluids are now used to a considerable
extent. While the main use of synthetic greases in aircraft application, increasing quantities are
now being used in specialized industrial application.

The synthetic fluids used most commonly in grease are silicones and esters, although
synthetic hydrocarbons are achieving increasing popularity. Most of these materials are used
because they have -

 Superior low temperature fluidity

 Higher viscosity index
 Lower volatility
 Better oxidation stability
 A combination of properties that permits manufacture of a grease with wider
temperature range capacity.

Additive and Modifiers

Additives and modifiers used most commonly in a lubricating grease are -

 Oxidation inhibitors
 Rust and corrosion inhibitors
 Extreme pressure agents
 Pour point depressants
 Lubricity or friction modifiers
 Dyes/pigments/fillers
Most of these materials have much the same function as similar material do when added to
lubricating oils.

It should be notes that additive response is often different in a grease compare to oils.

Manufacture of Grease
The manufacturer of a soap based grease involves five basic steps.

1. Saponification
2. Dehydration
3. Cutback
4. Deaeration
5. Filtering

In some manufacturing processes some of these steps may be accomplished simultaneously,

while in others they are distinct and separate steps.

The process require accurate weight or volumetric measurements of all feed components,
intimate mixing, rapid heating and cooling, together with milling dehydration and deaeration.

The primary requirement is a suitable vessel for making the soap. Oil is first charges into the
contractor, a pressure reaction vessel, and all the soap ingredients are added. Saponification
is then conducted at uniform temperature.

Once saponification is completed the remainder of oil and additives are added to completed
the manufacture of the grease. This is usually done in the finishing kettle.

Grease is then pumped to an homogeniser, deaerator, and then filled into drums or bulk
Manufacturing of Lubricating Grease by

Grease Classifications
Simple Normal Soap Grease
A normal calcium soap grease requires stearic acid plus an alkali such as lime which results in
calcium disstearate with water added to provide a structure modifier.

Lubricatinf fluid and additives are then added to the calcium disstearate thickener to obtain a
normal calcium soap grease. This grease would provide a relatively low dropping point of
about 80-90 Degrees Celsius (176-194 degrees Fahrenheit) and would have only fair stability

Improved Simple Normal Soap Grease

In order to improved the formulation, gain better stability and yield a higher temperature range,
the type of acid is changes to 12 hydroxystearic acid which provides built-in tie water (water
built onto the chemical formulation).

The hydroxyl group of 12 carbon replaces water used in the first formula example. This
change of acid choice increases the dropping point of the grease to about 170 degrees
Celsius (338 degrees Fahrenheit). It also increases the cost of the product.

Complex Soap Greases

To obtain a calcium complex formulation grease, the use of two or more dissimilar fats are
used plus an alkali.

Since water is also added but later boils off in the process, dropping points as high as 260
degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit) can be realised.

Non-Soap Thickeners
The most common type of non-soap thickeners are the clay gells.
These are produced by reacting special clays (called smectites) which are basically hydrophilic
with an amine compound to make the clay organophilic.

These activated clays now posses a thin flexible platelet or lathe type structure.

With the addition of an organic polar compound a new structure similar to a house of cards is

This structure or gell is held together by hydrogen bonding.

Once the gell has been formed oil and additives can be included in the same manner as for
soap based greases.

Grease Characteristics
Calcium Soap Grease
Calcium greases are limited in use to moderate service temperature. They have good pump
ability at lower temperatures and provide good lubrication in the presence of water.

Because calcium greases contain water as part pf the formulation, the product must be stored
under conditions where water cannot be lost or evaporated. Should water be lost, grease will
separate into gummy soap residue and oil.

Frequent re-lubrication is important since the grease structure in only moderately stable.

Calcium greases are older type greases and thus are somewhat primitive in many of today's
applications. Very little grease of this type is sold today.

Lithium Soap Grease

Lithium soap grease were first introduced in the 1940's and now service over 50% of the U.S.

They have the heat resistance of the soda base greases (dropping point of 175 degree Celsius
(347 degrees Fahrenheit), usable temperature range 100-125 degrees Celsius (212-257
degrees Fahrenheit)).

Lithium greases have a good resistance to water wash.

These grease have good pump ability characteristics in centralised systems but may tend
towards oil separation in fairly static, constant pressure systems (grease cups, slow cycle
central systems).

The improvements in grease formulations have produced an extreme pressure line of lithium
greases with ecologically acceptable unleaded materials.

Lithium greases have wide temperature performance characteristics. They have good
mechanical stability and hold their structure well in severe working applications.
Complex Soaps
A complex soap grease basically consists of a normal soap, such as calcium, plus a salt like
calcium acetate. The soaps and salts combine in fibers which provide a thickener system of
unique characteristics. Complex greases posses unusual combinations of properties not found
in simple or mixed soap greases.

The most important complex soap greases are made from salts of calcium, and lithium;
however, sodium, magnesium, aluminium, strontium, barium and lead have some applications.

Calcium Complex Greases

Calcium complex greases are used as multipurpose automotive and industrial greases.
Examples include heavy duty construction machinery and mining equipment.

Calcium complex greases have built in extreme pressure properties, good shear stability, good
corrosion and water resistance.

Preferred in high temperature applications because they retain their consistency. They have
drop points of up to 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit).

Lithium Complex Greases

Lithium complex greases are finding increasing use as multipurpose automotive and industrial

They are especially good in high temperature high speed bearings. They have drop points
between 260-300 degrees Celsius (500-572 degrees Fahrenheit). They have good water
sensitivity and good shear stability.

Successful applications include bearing lubrication in paper machine and in automotive front
wheels equipped with disc brakes.

Clay - Gell Greases

Clay - gell grease have a number of outstanding properties. These include -

 good metal adhesiveness

 drop points greater than 250 degree Celsius (482 degrees Fahrenheit)
 high water resistance
 multipurpose applications
 excellent pump ability in synthetic oils
Their main drawbacks are their cost compared to soap base greases and only fair pumpability
in mineral oil.
Grease Characteristics on Application
Smooth and buttery grease generally provide better pump ability - especially at low
temperature, and are more suitable for multipurpose use.
Fibrous-type greases provide for better sealing and stay-in-place capabilities, while poorer
pump ability and slump ability characteristics are experienced.
Note: Any grease can be made smooth/buttery or fibrous.

Many factors determine the upper temperature limit for satisfactory grease lubrication. In
general, most grease are not harmed at moderate temperatures, but continued exposure to
high temperature causes them to deteriorate.

Machine elements operating at high temperature must be lubricated more often. Just how
often, i.e. hours, days, weeks or longer, depends on whether the high temperature is
continuous or peak, the type of element, the load, and exposure to other conditions which may
harm grease properties.

Water Resistance
Water churn conditions normally occur in the rolling element bearings. Therefore, water
resistance of a grease is important in that all grease will adsorb (physical attachment) water
except sodium type greases which absorb (chemical inclusion) water. Soda greases continue
to absorb water until all consistency is lost - such as a bar of soap. All other greases adsorb
20-100% of their volume with water.
A good quality water resistant grease adsorbs a certain percentage of water with little change
in consistency, then repels all remaining water. Some greases lose a small amount of
consistency such as lithium, others such as clay types firm up when contaminated with large
volumes of water.

Adsorbtion and absorption are sesirable characteristics in that they eliminate free water - thus
provide good rust protection.

Water spray conditions occur when water impinges directly onto an application where grease
can be washed off very easily. Grease factors which can prevent rapid washing or
(displacement) of a grease in an application are:
 Texture - fibrous type grease are not washed off as rapidly as smooth/buttery type
 Oil Viscosity - grease made with heavy viscosity oils do not wash off as rapidly as do
greases with light viscosity oils.
 Consistency - heavy consistency grease reduce the washing effect of water.
When a grease is subjected to either water churn or spray conditions, an NLGI #2 grease is
the normal recommendation.

Extreme Pressure Properties

Calcium greases have inherent EP properties since the calcium soap is considered and EP
agent. All other grease types have EP properties built into them.

Oxidation Resistance
Oxidation resistance is provided through the use of additives and proper selection of the base

Mechanical Stability
Mechanical stability is formulated into the grease at the time of manufacture. Soap type also
plays an important role in that the fatty components provide varying degrees of stability.

Grease Selection Factors

Selection of a grease for a given application depends on many factors such as -

 Type of machine element

 Speed
 Temperature
 Load
 Environment
 Method of application
For example -

 Softer grade greases are preferred for centralised lubrication system.

 Low viscosity base oils tend to favour flow properties at low temperatures.
 For gun and grease cup application, stiffer grades are preferred.
 Spray application is usually limited to very soft or semi-fluid greases.

Compatibility of Grease
In general, grease having the same soap types are considered compatibility, however there
are exceptions to this rule, so the best recommendation is don't mix greases in service unless

 Compatibility has been checked by the laboratory.

 Element to be lubricated is completely purged of the grease being replaced.
 Previous field service experience has proven the grease in question to be compatible.
 The element being lubricated is watched closely to determine if the greases are
compatible (incompatibility usually leads to the grease becoming soft and leaks away from
the element and failure is due to lack of lubricant).
 When grease incompatibility exists, it is know to be more serious at higher operating

Grease Tests
Most of the grease tests that have been standardised, define or describe properties that are
related to the performance of a grease in specific applications, or to its storage and handling

Some tests measure physical or chemical properties, but a considerable proportion are
performance type tests in actual or simulated operating mechanisms.

Direct correlation between laboratory tests and field performance is rarely possible since the
tests never exactly duplicate service conditions.

For these reasons, an understanding of the intent and significance of the tests is essential for
those involved with the use of lubricating grease.

Penetrometer for Grease Consistency Testing by

Grease Tests
Click the heading to reveal it's details...


Consistency is defined as the degree to which a plastic material such as a

lubricating grease resists deformation under the application of force. It is
therefore a characteristic of plasticity, as viscosity is a characteristic of fluidity.
The consistency of a lubricating grease is not constant but varies with
temperature, and may also vary as a result of the handling or mechanical
working that the grease has been subjected to before measurement of its

Consistency is reported in terms of -

 ASTM Cone Penetration
 NLGI Number
 Apparent Viscosity
Cone Penetration

In this test a double-tapes cone is allowed to sink, for 5 seconds, under its own
weight into a sample held at 77F (25C). The amount that the cone penetrates
into the grease is measured in tenths of a millimetre and reported as the
penetration of the grease. Since the cone will sink farther into soft grease, high
penetrations indicate a soft grease.

Penetrations are reported as Undisturbed Penetrations, Unworked Penetrations,

Worked Penetrations, or Prolonged Worked Penetrations.

Undisturbed Penetrations are measured in the original container without

disturbance, and are determined mainly in case where hardening or softening in
storage has been reported.

Unworked Penetrations are measured on samples transferred to the greased

cup with minimum disturbance. This value may have some significance with
regard to transferring grease from the original containers to application

The value normally reported is the Worked Penetration, measured after the
sample has been worked 60 double strokes in the ASTM Grease Worker. It is
considered to be most reliable since the amount of disturbance of the sample is
Prolonged worked penetration is discussed later under Mechanical or Shear

NLGI Grease Numbers

On the basis of worked Penetration, the National Lubricating Grease Institue

(NLGI) has standardised a numerical scale for classifying the consistency of
The NLGI system of consistency grading is entirely adequate for most
applications where the preferred consistency of grease is specified.

Apparent Viscosity

Apparent viscosities of grease are determined by forcing samples of grease

through a set of capillary tubes at predetermined flow rates. From the
dimensions of the capillaries, the know flow rates, and the pressure required to
force the grease through the capillaries at those flow rates, the apparent
viscosity of the grease can be calculated.
Apparent viscosity is useful in predicting the handling and dispensing properties
of a grease. It can be related to starting and running torques in grease lubricated
mechanisms, and is also useful in predicting leakage tendencies.
Shear Stability

The ability of a grease to resist changes in consistency during mechanical

working is termed its shear stability or mechanical stability.
In prolonged working, the ASTM Grease Worker is commonly run for 10,000,
50,000, or 100,000 double strokes. After working, the sample and worker are
brought back to 25C in 1.5 hr, worked 60 double strokes and the penetration
The change in the worked penetration is an indication of shear stability, and is
indicative of the change in consistency that a grease will undergo in service.

Dropping Point

The dropping point of a grease is the temperature at which a drop of material

falls from the orifice of a test cup under prescribed test conditions. Plastic
materials such as conventional soap thickened greases do not have a true
melting point but have a melting range during which the material becomes
progressively softer. Some greases containing thickeners other than
conventional soaps may, without change in state, separate oil.
The sample is placed in the cup and heated at a uniform rate. When the first
drop of material falls from the lower end of the cup, the temperature is observed
and reported as the dropping point.
 The dropping point of a grease is not considered to have any bearing on
service performance other than a grease cannot normally be expected to
perform satisfactorily at temperatures above its dropping point.
 It does not establish the maximum useable temperature for the grease.
 Dropping point is useful in identifying a grease as a type, and for establishing
and maintaining bench marks for quality control.

Oxidation Stability

Resistance to oxidation is an important characteristic of greases intended for

use in rolling element bearings. Improvement in this property through the use of
oxidation inhibitors has enabled the development of the so-called "packed for
life" bearing.
Both the oil and the fatty constituents in a grease oxidise; the higher the
temperature the faster the rate of oxidation.
The test for Oxidation Stability by the "Oxygen Bomb Method" is a static test in
which the grease is placed in a set of five dishes. The dishes are then placed in
a pressure vessel, or bomb, which is pressurised to 110 psi with oxygen, and
placed in a bath held at 99C (210F) where it is allowed to remain for a period of
time, usually 100, 200 or 500 hours. The pressure is then recorded and the
amount of pressure drop reported. Pressure drops to 5 to 25 psi are usually
allowed, depending on the test time and the intended use of the grease.
The results of this test are probably most indicative of the stability of thin films of
a grease in extended storage, as on prelubricated bearings.
This test is not intended for the prediction of the stability of a grease under
dynamic conditions or in bulk quantities in the original containers.

Water Resistance

The ability of a grease to resist washout under conditions where water may
splash or impinge directly on a bearing is an important property in many
applications. Comparative results between different grease can be obtained with
the "Test for the Water Washout Characteristics of Lubricating Grease".
In this test, a ball bearing with loose shields is rotated with a jet of water
impinging on it. Resistance to washout is measured by the amount of grease
lost from the bearing during the test. The test is generally considered to be a
useful screening test for grease that is to be used where water washing occurs.
In many cases, direct impingement of water may not be a problem, but moist
atmospheres or water leakage may expose a grease to water contamination.
One method of evaluating a grease for use under conditions of this type is to
homogenize water into it. The grease may then be reported on the basis of the
amount of water it will absorb without loss of a grease structure, or the amount
of hardening or softening resulting from the admixture of a specific proportion of

Other Tests

There are numerous other physical tests that can be performed on greases
often depending upon the specific application of the grease. Some of the more
common tests are:
 Chirned Grease Oil Release (CGOR)
 Roll Stability
 Wheel Bearing Leakage
 EP and Wear Prevention
 Timken OK Load
 NLGI Dispensing Test
The details and significance of these tests can be obtained from the relevant
ASTM procedure.

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other articles you may be interested. Thanks for reading.
What is SAE, API and What to Use?
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) developed a grading system over 100 years ago
to classify the thickness of an oil by viscosity. It has been refined over the years but is still used by
all oil and automotive manufacturers globally.
Very crudely, an SAE 50 oil is about 20 times thicker than water when in use and an SAE 20 about
10 times thicker so a much lighter viscosity grade.

The W refers to winter/cold temperature viscosity. It cannot be compared to water as it becomes

ice at 32F/OC! However, again, the lower the number the less viscous it is at very low

When an engine oil states both grades e.g. SAE 15W-50 or SAE 5W-30 it is called a multigrade.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) sets Service Categories for engine oils that is also used
globally. Look for API S? something for your car in your service manual. If you have an older car,
don’t worry, normally using a higher API is still OK. Latest is API SN but could also be OK for API

If you have purchased a European or Japanese car, you might see a reference to ACEA and/or
ILSAC, but API & SAE should be there also.

Choosing the right API Service Category and then SAE Viscosity Grade is very, very important and
depends on 2 things, your engine design and the ambient temperatures where you are driving.

The service manual in your car will guide you.

First, confirm the API minimum performance requirement.

Then it is like buying a suit or a dress –> the material, the design, the designer, the colour, the cost
could all be the same, but the size which can be very different is also very important for it to work.

Same for engine oil re SAE Grade.

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Engine
Oil Viscosity
A package of automotive engine oil bears combinations of letters and figures and you are
thinking what the heck is SAE 5W-20 or 5W-30? You want to find out what’s that mean. Some
people found it’s too technical or too hard to understand. This article will help you see how
easily you can understand engine oil viscosity.

What is Viscosity?
Viscosity is a measure of the resistance to flow of liquids. We all know that water, gasoline,
and kerosene flow very readily. These liquids have low viscosities and are said to be “thin” or
“light” liquids; on the other hand, honey, molasses and asphalt flow very slowly and are said to
have high viscosity or to be “thick” or “heavy”.

Unit of Viscosity
In order to measure viscosity, we must have units. Imagine a liquid to consist of several layers,
and one layer moves relative to another layer at a definite velocity.

The resistance to the motion is a measure of the absolute viscosity: and if the layers are one
metre apart and the velocity of movement one metre per second the viscosity is one Pascal
second, which is the unit of absolute viscosity.

It is rather a large unit and normally we use one thousandth, or a millipascal second. This is
numerically equivalent to an old unit know as the centipoise, which is still very often used.

Absolute viscosity is not conveniently measured with high accuracy and simpler methods of
measurement of viscosity depending on flow through orifices or capillary tubes have been

The time of flow here is dependent not only the absolute viscosity, but on the pressure head
driving the liquid through the orifice tube.
For a given height of liquid this is proportional to the density of the liquid. So we have another
measurement of viscosity which depends on both the density and absolute viscosity and we
call this the kinematic viscosity.

The normal unit for this is the centistoke, or square millimetre per second the only approved
abbreviation for this is centistoke (cSt).

It is determined in specially designed viscometers based on bulbs and capillary tubes, with
arrangements for a reproducible head of liquid during measurement.

The time taken to pass under this head of liquid from one timing mark to another is
proportional to the kinematic viscosity. This is converted to absolute, sometimes called
dynamic, viscosity by multiplying by the density at the same temperature.

There are other ways of measuring viscosity based on time of flow through an orifice. These
are expressed as seconds, which represent the time of flow through an orifice. These are
expressed as seconds, which represent the time of flow of a know volume in a particular

The U.S. industry used the Saybolt Universal Seconds (S.U.S.), whereas in Britain the
Redwood instrument, measuring Redwood No, 1 secons, was used. These units die hard, but
centistokes are usually used except for some applications.

Since oils always become thinner as they are heated and increase in viscosity as they are
cooled, the measured viscosity is dependent on temperature. Therefore, the temperature must
always be stated when quoting viscosity.

For kinematic viscosity the normal temperatures for lubricants are 40C (104F) and 100C
(212F), but you often find temperatures of 20, 50, 60, 70 and 80C (68, 122, 140,158, and
176F) specified , or sub-zero temperatures for fuels. Saybolt seconds were normally
expressed at 100F and 210F, Redwood at 70F and 140F.
Viscosity Significance
Why it is important to ensure that a petroleum product has a correct viscosity. Where
lubricants are concerned, the main function is to eliminate metal to metal contact by
interposing a film of lubricant between moving surfaces.

Optimum Viscosity
If the oil is too thin, it will tend to run off the surface and leave them dry,
or leak through seals or past piston rings, if it is too thick, there will be a
viscous “drag” between surfaces and machine efficiency will be reduced.

Each lubricant application has its optimum viscosity; and oil of that viscosity is specified.
Generally, the thinnest possible oil which will stay on the surfaces without leakage and not be
excessively consumed is best.

The viscosity depends on the optimum figure for the application, the commercial authority
specification if it exists, the legal requirements associated with conforming to branded or
advertised viscosity, and conformity to uniform viscosity specification.

Principal Authorities
There are two principal authorities which classify lubricant viscosity throughout the world;
the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), based in USA and the International
Organization for Standardization (ISO).
The SAE has traditionally classified viscosities for engine and gear lubricants whereas
industrial lubricants have been covered by the ISO-VG (Viscosity Grade) System.

It should be made clear that these authorities do not stipulate the viscosity which
should be used in an engine or machine – this is up to the equipment builder or
the user.

It should be made clear that these authorities do not stipulate the viscosity which should be
used in an engine or machine – this is up to the equipment builder or the user.

However, they do nominate numberical limits which define a viscosity grade specified by the
equipment builder. Moreover they define a product by viscosity alone, and conformity which an
SAE or ISO VG limit has no relation to quality.

Viscosity Index
The viscosity of oils is affected by their temperature, and since viscosity is an important
property of any lubricant, we need to study these changes in greater details.

The effect of temperature changed is not uniform.

For example, any oil will change its viscosity much more between 10C (50F) and 15C (59F)
than it will between 80C (176F) and 85C (185F).

In the practical design of lubrication systems they are often confronted with the necessity of
finding out what the viscosity of an oil will be at, say 60C (140F), when its viscosity at 40C
(104F) and 100C (212F) are known.

Because the viscosity change is non-uniform, this is a problem. Of course, one way of solving
it is to send a sample of the oil to a laboratory, and to have its viscosity at 60C (140F) (or any
other desired temperature) determined by direct measurement.

This is seldom possible, but fortunately there is an alternative.

It involves the use of special graph paper with non-linear scales constructed in such a manner
that the viscosity-temperature relations for most hydrocarbons will plot as straight lines.

This paper is published by the ASTM. Using it, you can determine the viscosity of a
hydrocarbon at any temperature if the viscosities at two other temperatures are known.

All oils do not behave in the same way

It was discovered that all oils do not behave in the same way as far as their
temperature/viscosity relationships are concerned.

For example, suppose we have two oils which we shall call A and B. When their viscosities are
measured at 100C (212F), both are found to be 20 cSt. This far, no problem.

We now determine their viscosities at 40C (104F), and we find that st this temperature the
viscosity of A is 240 cSt, whereas B is 450 cSt. Evidently there is some fundamental difference
between the two, B being much more affected by temperature than A.

The thing that is different is a property called Viscosity Index, usually abbreviated to VI.
VI is not a fundamental property of matter. It is a completely arbitrary scale, designed
specifically for the needs of the oil industry.

The original concept was originated in 1929 by two American investigators names Dean and
Davis. The lube stocks that had the least change in viscosity were assigned a VI of 100. The
greatest change, on the other hand, these were assigned a VI of 0.

A high value of VI means a small change in viscosity and a low VI figure means a large

They had no way of knowing that the future would produce oils with VI values well in excess of
100, their system as originated could not accommodate this type of product, and had to be

Viscosity Index Over 100

Many products on the market today have VI values well over 100. It is possible to produce this
in straight lube stocks by improved refining methods.

Another source is synthesized hydrocarbons whose VI is 140 or more. But by far the
commonest route to high VI is the use of an additive called a “VI improver”.
Calculations of VI by the Dean and Davis method lead to anomalous and contradictory results
for high VI products and so a different method is used. You can find out more in ASTM D-2270
for fuller details.
Significance of Viscosity Index

"It is widely believed in the industry that a higher VI oil is
“better”. While this in some circumstances is correct, it cannot
by any means be accepted as a general truth."

Let’s first consider the accuracy with which VI can be determined. Since it is calculated directly
from viscosity figures, any error in these will be reflected in the VI.

Furthermore, a very small error in viscosity determination can make a quite significant change
in the VI, especially with low viscosity products.

Let’s consider an example using an oil of SAE 20 viscosity: -

Laboratory Viscosity 40C (104F) Viscosity 100C (212F) VI

Laboratory A 31.0 cSt 5.2 cSt 96
Laboratory B 31.2 cSt 5.16 cSt 92

Here we have two sets of viscosity determinations, which agree within industry standards for
reproducibility and yet which give VI numbers differing by four. Any greater variation in
viscosity determination will obviously lead to even larger discrepancies.

With higher viscosity materials, the precision improves but even so, a difference of less than
five numbers is unlikely to be significant.

What VI tell us about an oil

Having gained an insight into the accuracy with which VI can be determined, we need to
consider its significance. Listed below are some of the things that VI tells us about an oil.
Click to reveal more...

A higher VI oil changes less in viscosity with temperature.

This is sometimes thought to be of value in such case as, for
example, hydraulically operated machine tools, whose cycle time
varies as the machine warms up.
In general, this thinking will be found to be fallacious, because even
every high VI products still have a large viscosity change and hence
will have little effect on this type of problem.

The VI will give some indication of the type of hydrocarbons in

the oil.
A figure of around 95 – 105 indicates paraffinic material whereas lower
figures indicate naphthenic stocks.
For many years, Electron-Motive Division of General Motors
Corporation specified a maximum VI of 70 for their diesel locomotive
lubricating oil. This is because they preferred a naphthenic product.

VI as a check on processing condition

In lube refining, VI is used as a check on processing condition, not so much because VI itself
is important.

This is because it is an easily determined property, and has been found to correlate well with
other properties, such as oxidation resistance, when everything else is equal.
This has led to the widespread belief, mentioned above, that the higher the VI, the ‘better” the

The Higher The VI, The ‘Better” The Oil?

This has some validity if the two oils being compared are manufactured from
the same crude and by the same refining process, with similar process
conditions, and the difference in VI is significant.

When, however, the comparison is between two branded products, we will in all probability
have different crudes and processing methods, and any comparison becomes meaningless
unless the difference is very large indeed.
The SAE System

Everybody should be aware that a package of automotive engine oil bears combinations of
letters and figures such as “SAE 30” or “SAE 20W-50”, etc. These tell us something about the
contents of the package and in particular they convey some information about when and
where they should be used.

The “SAE” is the Society of Automotive Engineers – a body which, among its activities,
publishes standards for automotive components and materials as decided upon by its
One of these standards defines viscosities for engine and gear lubricants. Hence the first thing
that needs to be understood is that SAE numbers refer only to viscosity and do not imply any
other properties.

The first SAE lubricant classifications were published in 1911, their purpose being to provide
automotive manufacturers and users with a common language that would ensure the use of a
lubricant which was, at least, appropriate in viscosity.

Lubricants were classified in terms of Saybolt viscosities at 210F. This temperature was
selected, firstly because it approximated to actual crank case temperatures which could be
expected in summer, and secondly because it was a standard reference temperature in the

The classifications were the wellknown 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 grades which are still in use. An
SAE 20 oil was defined as one whose viscosity was between 45 and 58 SUS at 210F, SAE 30
was between 58 and 70, and so on.

It is interesting to note that in 1981 these classifications are still essentially the same, although
now expressed in centistrokes and at 100C (212F). Most of the changes to the system have
affected the method of describing low-temperature performance properties.
Low Temperature Properties
In 1911, most motorists laid up their cars for the winter months, and low temperature lubricant
properties were therefore not regarded as important. But things changed. Year-round motoring
became more common, as did electric starters.

These developments focused attention in low temperature behavior of the lubricating oil, and
in 1923 the SAE added pour point requirements, which at least ensured that the lubricant
would be fluid at the specified temperatures.

Ten years later, in 1933, a specification laying down actual viscosity limits, was added. The
viscosities were specified, still in Saybolt seconds, at 0F, so the figures were arrived at by
extrapolation, on an ASTM chart, from measured viscosities ar 100F and 210F.

Now it is not an easy matter to measure viscosities at 100F and 210F. Two classifications were
at first introduced, 10W and 20W. The 20W classification was choosen so that a lubricant of
90-100 VI would meet the SAE 20 limits as well, and so it would be labeled SAE 20W-20.

In 1950 a 5W classification was added. The suffix “W” implied “winter” grade.

During the fifties, multigrade oils containing VI improver additives began to penetrate the
market, and in the U.S. there was also a major swing to eight cylinder engines in passenger

This combination began to produce a crop of cold weather starting difficulties, firstly because
the bigger engines were harder to crank and, secondly because VI-improved oils are more or
less non-Newtonian, especially at low temperatures, and hence extrapolated viscosities are
not a reliable guide to low temperature performance.

Thus in 1967, extrapolated viscosities were replaced by actual viscosities (in poise) measured
in a device known as a Cold Cranking Simulator, originally at 0F and more recently at -18C.
The Cold Cranking Simulator is a relatively simple device, consisting of a cyclindrical motor
with two flats, revolving in a cylindrical housing through which chilled liquid can be circulated.
The above diagram will make the details clear. The driving motor current is what is measures,
and the apparatus needs to be calibrated using oils of know viscosity.

During the mid-seventies, there was pressure from European manufacturers to introduce a
15W classification. To undersand the need for this, one must digress a little to study the nature
of multigrade oils.

A multigrade consists of a base stock plus a VI improver additive. As we have seen, it is

required to comply with certain viscosity limits at -18C / 0F (as measured by CCS) and at
100C / 212F (as measured by kinematic viscometer).

As a broad generality, it may be said that the low temperature properties of a multigrade are
determined by the base oil used in the blend, whereas the high temperature properties depend
on the nature and quantity of the VI improver additive.

Hence a 10W-X blend will contain a lower viscosity base oil than a 20W-X.

Now viscosity measurement at 100C in the laboratory will give definite and repeatable results,
but these measurements are made at very low shear rates, whereas in actual service in an
engine, the lubricant is subjected to very high shear rates.

Given the non-Newtonian nature of VI-improved oils, some observers believe that laboratory
measurements of viscosity do not necessarily correlate with effective wear-preventing viscosity
as seen by the engine.
In short, the European manufacturers find that a 10W-X blend was, to put it as simply as
possible, too thin to provide adequate protection for their small high-output engines operating
at high speed on motorways.

Across the Atlantic, the American motorist’s big V-8 operating at legally imposed moderate
speeds, had no such problem.

The obvious solution for Europe was therefore a 20W-X blend, but this gave rise to starting
problems, because, again to put it simply, it is too thick at low temperature.

The compromise solution is the 15W classification which was introduced in 1977. This is not a
separate classification. It simply identifies that the oil is an SAE 20W, but at the low end of the

As a genral rule, lube oil blenders will keep their low temperature viscosities close to the high
end of therange, because lowering this figure will require more VI improver in the blend, and VI
Improvers are expensive additives.

Summarizing then, an SAE 20W oil is one whose CCS viscosity at -18C (0F) is between 25
and 100 poises. To quote the SAE’s own words – “SAE 15W may be used to identify SAE 20W
oils which have a maximum viscosity at -18C (0F) of 50 poises.

Later Developments
Even though the CCS viscosity defines one aspect of low-temperature performance,
manufacturers found that they occasionally had engine failures leading to warranty claims due
to engines being starved of oil at cold start-up conditions. Hence, there arose a need to
measure “pumpability” as well as viscosity.

A further test has now been devised, using an instrument known as a “mini-rotary viscometer”
(MRV). Without going into details, this instrument somewhat resembles a Brookfield, utilizing a
revolving cylinder.

At the same time, the SAE has proposed some additional classification, and the range is now
as set out below.

SAE Engine Oil Viscosity Classification: SAE J300

For motor oils “W” (0W, 5W, 10W, 15W, 20W, 25W) refers to the viscosity at 0F (-18C) as
determined by the cold cranking simulator.

The straight figure (16, 20,30, 40, 50,60), refers to the viscosity at 100C (212F)

What does 5W-30 mean?

The W stands for Winter and refers to low-temperature performance relating to engine
cranking speed and oil pumpability.

Grade 5W, from the top half of the table, this oil will have a cranking viscosity maximum of
6,600 mPa.s even in a cold winter night if its temperature should drop to -30C (-22F) and a
maximum pumping viscosity of 61,000 mPa.s at temperature -35C (-31F).

Grade 30, from the bottom half of the table, this oil will have a low-shear-rate of kinematic
viscosity in the range 9.3-12.5 cSt at 100C (212F) and a high-shear-rate viscosity no less than
2.9 mPa.s in the high temperature (150C / 302F) and high pressure part of an engine.

What is the different between 5W30 and 5W20?

5W30 vs 5W20? Basically, the higher the number, the higher the viscosity and the thicker the

An SAE 5W-XX engine oil can be used down to -35C (-31F). An SAE 0W-XX can be used at a
lower temperature as thinner but an SAE 10W-XX at a higher temperature as thicker.
For SAE 5W-20 vs SAE 5W-30, the difference is the high temperature (100C / 212F) and
HTHS (High Temperature High Shear 150C / 302F viscosities. 5W-30 has higher viscosity than
5W-20. The higher the viscosity, the thicker the oil.

SAE XW-20 will provide better fuel economy or provide more horsepower than an SAE XW-30
oil as less viscous & thinner providing less friction.

However, less viscous & thinner oils may not provide hardware durability leading to increased
engine wear.

Why are 5W30 and 5W20 are so common?

SAE 5W30 and SAE 5W20 are so common because they are very thin oils that provide the
best fuel economy which the motor manufacturers and governments of USA, Japan & Europe
want today. Save fuel consumption with fewer exhaust emissions.

What Motor Grade Oil should I use?

The SAE Viscosity Grade you should use for a new vehicle is as the manufacturer states as it
is a combination of fuel economy claims and engine durability. An engine has to be specifically
designed for the low viscosity engine oils.

Oils are becoming thinner but advanced chemistry is required to provide required wear
protection as with older thicker oils.

The future is for ultra low friction engines such that the SAE has introduced an SAE XW-16
classification, maybe SAE XW-4, 8 & 12 also.

For further detailed information refer to SAE Viscosity Grades, SAE J300.
Congratulations! You have made it to the end of the ultimate guide to viscosity! We hope this
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