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December 23, 2015

Volume 17 Issue 52

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PC-11’s Next Hurdle: Customers

With PC-11 heavy-duty engine oils advancing towards a launch next Dec. 1, lubricant marketers are focusing on the hard questions: How to demonstrate the performance of the new products, what will they do to drain intervals, and how eager are customers to have them?

Earlier this month, Melissa Chu of Infineum reminded an industry gathering that PC-11 formulations – which are expected to be labeled as API CK-4, or API FA-4 for a fuel-saving version – will have to undergo a costly slate of tests before licensing by the American Petroleum Institute. And yes, longer drain intervals could result, she believes, once original equipment manufacturers get comfortable with these products.

The conference also heard from Ryder’s Scott Perry, who voiced encouragement for PC-11’s developers – but warned that the category’s split personality is a turn-off that “may not be completely welcomed by every user.”

As Chu explained on Dec. 3 at the ICIS Pan American Base Oils and Lubricants Conference in New Jersey, candidate PC-11 oils will have to pass 11 engine sequence tests: all nine from the current heavy-duty category (API CJ-4), plus two new ones for thermal management and aeration control.

API has not yet completed the Viscosity Grade Read Across or Base Oil Interchange guidelines for these new tests – the Volvo T-13 and Caterpillar Oil Aeration Test – so successful results with one base oil will not “read across” to a broad base oil slate, Chu emphasized. Absent the guidelines, candidate oil testing costs will be very difficult for formulators to manage.

The FA-4 version of the new category is designed to improve fuel economy through lighter viscosity grades with no loss of engine durability, said Chu, the additive company’s senior lubricants deployment technologist. FA-4 oils in the SAE 10W-30 grade will have high temperature, high shear rate viscosity of 2.9 to 3.2 centiPoise, while those meeting API CK-4 are beefier (HTHS viscosity greater than 3.5 cP).

Infineum has been testing SAE 10W-30 oils meeting FA-4, and concluded that their reduced HTHS viscosity won’t hurt durability if proper chemistry is employed. It also found striking fuel economy improvements versus 15W-40 oils, ranging from 4 percent to 12 percent during stop-and-go and idling regimes, and around 2 percent in on-road, long-haul conditions.

Scott Perry, vice president of supply management at trucking giant Ryder System, told the ICIS meeting he looks forward to those fuel economy benefits, especially since his company consumes more than a billion gallons of fuel a year. Last year, Ryder adopted SAE 10W-30 engine oils across its entire fleet of more than 200,000 trucks, and notched handsome fuel savings, he said.

However, with his eye on more than 800 Ryder maintenance facilities, Perry now worries that API CK-4 and FA-4 will bring unwanted complexity into these shops.

“It’s not that trucking companies don’t value and appreciate the work the oil industry has done on PC-11,” he remarked, “but there are significant distractions on us right now.” These include regulatory issues, fuel economy and emissions mandates, a shortage of drivers and technicians, and the risk of eroding the resale value of Ryder’s equipment if new technologies don’t perform as promised.

“PC-11 may not be completely welcomed by every user,” Perry continued. “The improved fuel economy, yes, that’s a plus. Lower emissions? Definitely a plus, as it helps us meet the requirements for lower emissions and greenhouse gases. But the effect on engine reliability could be a positive or a negative – we’ll need to see how the new oils will interact with other new hardware and technologies.

“PC-11 may also involve infrastructure investments,” he stressed, which are most unwelcome. “We operate on a bulk system of diesel engine oils across our fleet, mostly. But introducing an oil that is not backward compatible, like FA-4, could require a significant investment in our system – upwards of $20 million.”

Another concern: How to assure that Ryder’s technicians and customers deploy the right PC-11 oil each time. “If I have to introduce a decision point in our system,” Perry said, “half of the time they may get it right, and half of the time they may not get it right... PC-11 creates a significant level of complexity.”

As Infineum’s Chu pointed out, there’s also the puzzle of extended drain intervals, which could affect volume demand for base oils and finished lubricants alike. “Heavy-duty OEMs want at least to maintain their current drain intervals and want the ability to extend them further,” she said. “PC-11 doesn’t define drain intervals, but it will enable them to be extended,” through performance gains such as greater oxidation control, reduced wear, reduced oil consumption and better shear stability.

She added that PC-11 formulations are likely to shift to higher additive treat levels in order to achieve higher TBN retention and oxidation control, which are also critical for longer drain intervals.

“Backwards serviceability for PC-11’s FA-4 version is a big dilemma,” she continued. “The question is, will the OEMS allow FA-4 to be used in older engines? End users would like to use the same ‘universal’ oil across their fleets in both old and new diesel engines, but the OEMS will want to see a lot of field data in order to be comfortable with allowing FA-4 in their older engines.”

Chu thinks this will happen eventually, but not overnight, because diesel engine builders take a conservative stance on durability. Despite years of field experience, she noted, some OEMs didn’t begin recommending SAE 10W-30 oils for their units until 2012 or 2013.

If OEMs bless it, the new FA-4 category will see faster adoption, Chu mused. “The mass market will want a backwards-compatible oil, so the mass market will buy it if OEMs allow it. To start though, FA-4 oils probably will be geared to early adopters in the high-mileage highway segment.”