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Background

Since the Roman era, many liquids, including water, have been used as lubricants to
minimize the friction, heat, and wear between mechanical parts in contact with each
other. Today, lubricating oil, or lube oil, is the most commonly used lubricant
because of its wide range of possible applications. The two basic categories of lube
oil are mineral and synthetic. Mineral oils are refined from naturally occurring
petroleum, or crude oil. Synthetic oils are manufactured polyalphaolefins, which
are hydrocarbon-based polyglycols or ester oils.
Although there are many types of lube oils to choose from, mineral oils are the most
commonly used because the supply of crude oil has rendered them inexpensive;
moreover, a large body of data on their properties and use already exists. Another
advantage of mineral-based lube oils is that they can be produced in a wide range of
viscosities—viscosity refers to the substance's resistance to flow—for diverse
applications. They range from low-viscosity oils, which consist of hydrogen-carbon
chains with molecular weights of around 200 atomic mass units (amu), to highly
viscous lubricants with molecular weights as high as 1000 amu. Mineral-based oils
with different viscosities can even be blended together to improve their performance
in a given application. The common 1OW-30 motor oil, for example, is a blend of low
viscous oil (for easy starting at low temperatures) and highly viscous oil (for better
motor protection at normal running temperatures).
First used in the aerospace industry, synthetic lubricants are usually formulated for a
specific application to which mineral oils are ill-suited. For example, synthetics are
used where extremely high operating temperatures are encountered or where the
lube oil must be fire resistant. This article will focus on mineral-based lube oil.

Raw Materials
Lube oils are just one of many fractions, or components, that can be derived from
raw petroleum, which emerges from an oil well as a yellow-to-black, flammable,
liquid mixture of thousands of hydrocarbons (organic compounds containing only
carbon and hydrogen atoms, these occur in all fossil fuels). Petroleum deposits were
formed by the decomposition of tiny plants and animals that lived about 400 million
years ago. Due to climatic and geographical changes occurring at that time in the
Earth's history, the breakdown of these organisms varied from region to region.
Because of the different rates at which organic material decomposed in various
places, the nature and percentage of the resulting hydrocarbons vary widely.
Consequently, so do the physical and chemical characteristics of the crude oils
extracted from different sites. For example, while California crude has a specific
gravity of 0.92 grams/milliliter, the lighter Pennsylvania crude has a specific gravity of
0.81 grams/milliliter. (Specific gravity, which refers to the ratio of a substance's
weight to that of an equal volume of water, is an important aspect of crude oil.)
Overall, the specific gravity of crudes ranges between 0.80 and 0.97 grams/milliliter.
Depending on the application, chemicals called additives may be mixed with the
Lubricating oil is refined from crude oil. After undergoing a purifying process colled sedimentation, the
crude oil is heated in huge fractionating towers. The various vapors—which can be used to make fuel,
waxes, or propane, among other substances—boil off and are collected at different points in the tower. The
lube oil that is collected is filtered, and then additives are mixed in.

refined oil to give it desired physical properties. Common additives include metals
such as lead or metal sulphide, which enhance lube oil's ability to prevent galling and
scoring when metal surfaces come in contact under extremely high pressures. High-
molecular weight polymerics are another common additive: they improve viscosity,
counteracting the tendency of oils to thin at high temperatures. Nitrosomines are
employed as antioxidants and corrosion inhibitors because they neutralize acids and
form protective films on metal surfaces.

The Manufacturing
Process
Lube oil is extracted from crude oil, which undergoes a preliminary purification
process (sedimentation) before it is pumped into fractionating towers. A typical high-
efficiency fractionating tower, 25 to 35 feet (7.6 to 10.6 meters) in diameter and up to
400 feet (122 meters) tall, is constructed of high grade steels to resist the corrosive
compounds present in crude oils; inside, it is fitted with an ascending series of
condensate collecting trays. Within a tower, the thousands of hydrocarbons in crude
oil are separated from each other by a process called fractional distillation. As the
vapors rise up through the tower, the various fractions cool, condense, and return to
liquid form at different rates determined by their respective boiling points (the lower
the boiling point of the fraction, the higher it rises before condensing). Natural gas
reaches its boiling point first, followed by gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil, lubricants, and
tars.

Sedimentation
 1 The crude oil is transported from the oil well to the refinery by pipeline or
tanker ship. At the refinery, the oil undergoes sedimentation to remove any
water and solid contaminants, such as sand and rock, that maybe suspended
in it. During this process, the crude is pumped into large holding tanks, where
the water and oil are allowed to separate and the contaminants settle out of
the oil.

Fractionating
 2 Next, the crude oil is heated to about 700 degrees Fahrenheit (371 degrees
Celsius). At this temperature it breaks down into a mixture of hot vapor and
liquid that is then pumped into the bottom of the first of two fractionating
towers. Here, the hot hydrocarbon vapors float upward. As they cool, they
condense and are collected in different trays installed at different levels in the
tower. In this tower, normal atmospheric pressure is maintained continuously,
and about 80 percent of the crude oil vaporizes.
 3 The remaining 20 percent of the oil is then reheated and pumped into a
second tower, wherein vacuum pressure lowers the residual oil's boiling point
so that it can be made to vaporize at a lower temperature. The heavier
compounds with higher boiling points, such as tar and the inorganic
compounds, remain behind for further processing.

Filtering and solvent extraction


 4 After further processing to remove unwanted compounds, the lube oil that
has been collected in the two fractionating towers is passed through several
ultrafine filters, which remove remaining impurities. Aromatics, one such
contaminant, contain six-carbon rings that would affect the lube oil's viscosity
if they weren't removed in a process called solvent
extraction. Solvent extraction is possible because aromatics are more soluble
in the solvent than the lube oil fraction is. When the lube oil is treated with the
solvent, the aromatics dissolve; later, after the solvent has been removed, the
aromatics can be recovered from it.

Additives, inspection, and packaging


 5 Finally, the oil is mixed with additives to give it the desired physical
properties (such as the ability to withstand low temperatures). At this point,
the lube oil is subjected to a variety of quality control tests that assess its
viscosity, specific gravity, color, flash, and fire points. Oil that meets quality
standards is then packaged for sale and distribution.
Quality Control
Most applications of lube oils require that they be nonresinous, pale-colored,
odorless, and oxidation-resistant. Over a dozen physical and chemical tests are used
to classify and determine the grade of lubricating oils. Common physical tests
include measurements for viscosity, specific gravity, and color, while typical chemical
tests include those for flash and fire points.
Of all the properties, viscosity, a lube oil's resistance to flow at specific temperatures
and pressures, is probably the single most important one. The application and
operating temperature range are key factors in determining the proper viscosity for
an oil. For example, if the oil is too viscous, it offers too much resistance to the metal
parts moving against each other. On the other hand, if it not viscous enough, it will
be squeezed out from between the mating surfaces and will not be able to lubricate
them sufficiently. The Saybolt Standard Universal Viscometer is the standard
instrument for determining viscosity of petroleum lubricants between 70 and 210
degrees Fahrenheit (21 and 99 degrees Celsius). Viscosity is measured in the Say
bolt Universal second, which is the time in seconds required for 50 milliliters of oil to
empty out of a Saybolt viscometer cup through a calibrated tube orifice at a given
temperature.
The specific gravity of an oil depends on the refining method and the types of
additives present, such as lead, which gives the lube oil the ability to resist extreme
mating surface pressure and cold temperatures. The lube oil's color indicates the
uniformity of a particular grade or brand. The oil's flash and fire points vary with the
crude oil's origin. The flash point is the temperature to which an oil has to be heated
until sufficient flammable vapor is driven off so that it will flash when brought into
contact with a flame. The fire point is the higher temperature at which the oil vapor
will continue to burn when ignited.
Common engine oils are classified by viscosity and performance according to
specifications established by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).
Performance factors include wear prevention, oil sludge deposit formation, and oil
thickening.

The Future
The future of mineral-based lubricating oil is limited, because the natural supplies of
petroleum are both finite and non-renewable. Experts estimate the total recoverable
light to medium petroleum reserves at 1.6 trillion barrels, of which a third has been
used. Thus, synthetic-based oils will probably be increasingly important as natural
reserves dwindle. This is true not only for lubricating oil but also for the other
products that result from petroleum refining.

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