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July 6, 2016

Volume 17 Issue 52

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U.S. Government Tests Biolubes

Several U.S. government agencies, including the Air Force, are testing the performance of biobased motor oils in non-tactical ground vehicles for possible conversion once these products are commercially available.

The Department of Defense unveiled earlier this year that it is evaluating vegetable-based engine oils’ performance in select vehicles, noting that if biolubes stack up against conventional mineral oils, it would possibly require the oils to be purchased for use in its fleet of 200,000 vehicles. If biobased oils are comparable to or better than petroleum oil, the conversion could even extend to the entire government’s fleet – including civilian and military services – of more than 633,000 vehicles nationwide, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

The U.S. Air Force began the experiment in January under the sponsorship and direction of the DLA, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Air Force Research Laboratory, which is located at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson base.

Project heads and Air Force personnel randomly selected four vehicles at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, drained the standard petroleum oil typically used in its ground fleet, and filled the engines with select bio products. They then sent the spent conventional oil to a third-party lab to establish a baseline from which to evaluate samples of the new plant-based oil that they will submit intermittently during the 12- to 18-month trial period.

The testing ground was then expanded to include a handful of vehicles at a few sites across the country – including Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington; Luke AFB in Glendale, Arizona; Malmstrom AFB in Great Falls, Montana, and a Department of Homeland Security law enforcement training center in Brunswick, Georgia, for a total trial pool of 40 vehicles.

The initiative spurs from the DLA’s Green Products & Hazardous Minimization directive, which was part of a 2010 sustainability policy, according to an April 27 report on the DLA’s website. “Oil and greases are typically composed of [mineral] base oils [enhanced] with polymers, solids and other additives, which are considered hazardous,” explained DLA Aviation’s Andy Shaban, a chemical engineer and program manager. “Our job is to find an environmentally safer substitute for the traditional oil that military and federal agencies use in non-tactical vehicles.”

Although it’s being carried out on a relatively small scale, the field test is designed to represent a wide range of characteristics experienced by the DoD’s non-tactical ground vehicles.

Photo: U.S. Air Force

The Air Force is testing biobased motor oils in non-tactical ground vehicles. Here a C-17 Globemaster III is being loaded at the Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, in 2006.

Test vehicles were randomized, but the locations were carefully selected based on unique types of services and geological attributes. The North Carolina site is hot and humid; Fairchild’s base requires vehicle transport across rugged terrain; Arizona is hot and dry, and Malmstrom is prone to snow and extreme cold conditions, explained Senior Master Sergeant Joel Villarin from Virginia’s Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in a March 24 report published on the Malmstrom AFB’s website.

Oils from three separate suppliers –Biosynthetic Technologies, BioBlend and Loch Sciences b2 biOil – were installed in equal amounts of vehicles, according to the DLA.

Biosynthetic Technologies’ CEO, Allen Barbieri, told Lube Report that the Air Force field tests represent just one stage in an ongoing process – noting that an even more supreme driver of the tests is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred Program.

The directive, which was created by the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, mandates that government and government contractors purchase products with a specific minimum level of biological ingredients in almost 100 categories of products found in everyday equipment and services – including various types of lubricants – if such a product exists and can be proven to perform as well as its non-biobased alternative.

In ensuring that a high-performing biobased motor oil exists, the USDA actually invented the technology underlying BioSynthetic Technologies’ base oils, Barbieri noted. The agency has a vested interest in seeing that the venture comes full circle to align with the program’s goals.

However, when it comes to passenger car motor oils, biobased products still aren’t yet available on a wide commercial scale, he remarked, so the directive isn’t currently enforceable. But once commercial supply of biobased motor oils is adequate to meet demand, the products will inevitably find their way into the engines of federal agencies’ vehicles.

“The entire federal fleet of automobiles should switch over to biobased motor oils once available, because the BioPreferred Program mandated that all U.S. government agencies and all contractors working for the U.S. government are required to use motor oils containing at least 25 percent bio content,” he said. “Since most big corporations are contractors with the U.S. government – from FedEx to Walmart – the opportunity here is tremendous.”

The Air Force is not the only entity testing biobased oils. The DLA report noted that it was planning to expand testing to several other federal agencies this year, and Barbieri pointed out that the company has been approached by other agencies interested in testing as well.