Synthetic motor oil by Phil Bailey About ten years ago, when I was a local bright light in the Montreal radio world, I used to be approached to test a lot of automotive products. One such product was called 'Motrlube' and was being produced by a chemical company in Montreal. Initially, this company, in conjunction with the National Research Council, had been asked to develop a non freezing grease for the old fire hydrants in the city. Unfortunately, the synthetic grease they produced worked so well that the city's needs for the following years were far less than expected, so the company set out to find another outlet for its research and decided upon motor oil as a strong possibility. The secret was that this company had developed a catalyst that allowed them to blend together three different polyalphaolefins (PAOs) to produce a very superior product at low cost. As it happened, I was leaving for a 1300 Km run to Halifax the next week in my Golf, so I poured 4 litres of this dark brown brew into my engine, along with a new filter and off I went. Now, I had previously driven as far West as Calgary, for the usual reason. When working on a project, I would take my car to the site and fly home every weekend. Sometimes these projects would last for months, so I made some extra money and the client saved a bundle on rental car fees. As anyone knows, who drives long distances, one gets used to the rhythm and sound of the car. No need to watch the speedometer, you just know when you are traveling at a good cruising speed. I usually try to drive just 'under the radar' at about 117 Km/hour. Somewhere west of Quebec City, on the long run to Riviere du Loup, I happened to glance down at the speedometer and found myself running at 135 Km/hour. Foot off the loud pedal, settle down again, back up to 135K. The engine was running very smoothly indeed and I began to realize that this brown liquid in the engine was the reason for this quiet running. Usually, I achieved about 37 mpg on such a run. On this run I got over 41 mpg at a higher running speed. Since that day, I've used Motrlube, a company now based in Calgary, in all my cars. At that time, the Motrlube company claimed that the product was good for two years or 60,000 Km between oil changes. I decided to push the envelope and went for 3 years and 100K without an oil change. I changed the filter every year and at that time I sent a sample to a laboratory for analysis. The lab conclusion in every case was "do not change the oil'. Now this old faithful car of mine, is used for winter driving only. It has 400,000 Km on the clock and the body is held together with epoxy putty, but the engine starts first time in winter and has never been opened up for any reason except to change timing belts. It still burns no oil. I'm pretty sure that the use of pure PAO synthetics has produced this result. Equally, I use synthetics in the gearbox, which makes VWs notoriously reluctant gearbox work much better in very cold weather. Ten years later, everyone has a long life product, but there are still only a handful of pure PAO products on the market. Amsoil, Redline and Motrlube are three of the ones I know well and they are all very good products. (You can find the websites of all these companies through the Canadian Driver web index). Castrol, egged on by Audi, recently launched SLX Longlife II In Europe. And this oil has the ability to keep some engines operating for up to a staggering 30,000 miles (50,000 Km ) between changes. (Castrol's words, not mine). This Audi Variable Service concept (AVS) first appeared in the European A2 - a car designed without a hood for "minimal mechanical interference by the owner' - quote. The low maintenance idea has been extended to other cars in the Audi range since, and Longlife gives these cars the potential to cover up to 19,000 miles (30,000 Km ) between services. Audi's V6 TDI diesels can cover as many as 22,000 miles (36,000 Km ) before draining the sump and four-cylinder TDI diesels might, in the right circumstances, avoid mechanics for up to 30,000 miles. Audi spokesman David Goosey said "This oil has been developed to maintain its viscosity characteristics, and so deliver the key benefits of fuel efficiency and wear protection, throughout far longer oil drain intervals." Under AVS, Audi drivers no longer need to adhere to a traditional service plan. Instead, new Audis have an on-board system, which monitors both current engine condition, and the type of motoring the car has typically endured. It then tells the driver when a service is required via the instrument panel. Last time I was in the UK, I priced this product and it was selling for $20 a litre, which leads me to believe that this is definitely a pure PAO product. So what about the $7 products that we can buy over here? Products such as Castrol Syntec and Mobil1? Well, these products have a very good performance level, but cannot match the life of the pure PAO formulations. To start at the beginning, ordinary engine oil is a by-product of the refining process and becomes available whether the refiner wants it or not. As a lubricant, it has very little value at all until it is doctored with a group of additives, from which comes the viscosity and durability rating shown on the container. As we all are aware, the basic raw material is a very viscous black goo, that has to be diluted with solvents at the refinery so that it can be processed. Unfortunately, these solvents are carried over with the lubricating oil fraction and are the major reason for the rapid deterioration of the additives in less expensive oils. Within 2000 Km or so, low cost oil is not doing much of a job of lubricating your engine. At high temperatures, this oil carbonises rapidly and most of the black residue that drains out at an oil change is not engine wear, but burnt, deteriorated, oil that has carbonised itself into oblivion. A $1.50/litre motor oil, no matter what the brand name, should not be left in your engine for more than 5000 Km. 100% recycled oil, selling for eighty eight cents per litre in the big retail stores, has hit the market. Note that even these oils have an SF/CC rating, which only goes to show how low these standards really can be. So that, in general, ordinary engine oil has not improved much in the last five years or so. Now next up are the "100%' synthetics which carry a little disclaimer on their label: " not including carrier oil". These products are known as Hydrogenated Esters (HE) and are just properly modified and reprocessed mineral oils, although they certainly perform much more adequately and are probably good for 24,000 Km between drain periods, with regular filter changes. Fourth generation products, are now available, as used in the aircraft industry, where oil changes are uncommon, at least in jet planes. If one can find a way of formulating a PAO (polymer) based product containing no mineral oil whatsoever, at an affordable price, then one has a fourth generation engine lubricant that can remain in an engine, almost until the engine is rebuilt. Filtration of pure PAO lubricants is not challenging for the filter because no carbon is present, and the filter is doing what it should do, eliminating the odd metal particle. If you have a new car and wish to comply entirely with your warranty, then your owner's manual calls for an oil change every 12,000 Km. Changing a pure PAO product at this distance is major overkill, but costs only $65 on average and is therefore no more expensive than cheap oil changed every 4000 Km, particularly if the latter service is done at a dealership. Another common objection to leaving oil in an engine for long periods of time is contamination from products of combustion. In the case of mineral oil, one can actually form an emulsion with water, resulting in a beige coloured `mayonnaise' that is some times seen on oil filler caps. By contrast, PAO based lubricants shrug off water and acids and will not form emulsions. Consequently, as soon as the engine lubricant reaches the boiling point of the condensables, PAO's reject them through the PCV valve and go back to doing their job of lubricating the engine, completely unaffected by diluents of any kind.And now, let's put to bed all the objections you will hear concerning the use of synthetic engine lubricants: Myth #1: Synthetic motor oils damage seals. Untrue. It would be foolhardy for lubricant manufacturers to build a product that is incompatible with seals. The composition of seals presents problems that both petroleum oils and synthetics must overcome. Made from elastomers, seals are inherently difficult to standardize. Ultimately it is the additive mix in the oil that counts. Additives to control seal swell, shrinkage and hardening are required, whether it be a synthetic or petroleum product that is being produced. Myth #2: Synthetics are too thin to stay in the engine. Untrue. In order for a lubricant to be classified in any SAE grade (10W-30, 10W-40, etc) it has to meet certain guidelines with regard to viscosity ("thickness"). For example, it makes no difference whether it is 10W-40 petroleum or 10W-40 synthetic, at -25 degrees centigrade (-13F) and 100 degrees centigrade (212 degrees F) that oil has to maintain a standardized viscosity or it can't be rated a 10W-40. Myth #3: Synthetics cause cars to use more oil. Untrue. Synthetic motor oils are intended to use in mechanically sound engines, that is, engines that don't leak. In such engines oil consumption will actually be reduced. First, because of the lower volatility of synlubes. Second, because of the better sealing characteristics between piston rings and cylinder walls. And finally, because of the superior oxidation stability (i.e. resistance of synthetics against reacting with oxygen at high temperatures.) Myth #4: Synthetic lubricants are not compatible with petroleum. Untrue. The synthesized hydrocarbons, polyalphaolefins, diesters and other materials that form the base stocks of high quality name brand synthetics are fully compatible with petroleum oils. In the old days, some companies used untested ingredients that were not compatible, causing quality synthetic lubricants to suffer a bad reputation. Fortunately, those days are long gone. Compatibility is something to keep in mind, however, whether using petroleum oils or synthetics. It is usually best to use the same oil for topping off that you have been running in the engine. That is, it is preferable to not mix your oils, even if it is Valvoline or Quaker State you are using. The reason is this: the functions of additives blended for specific characteristics can be offset when oils with different additive packages are put together. For optimal performance, it is better to use the same oil throughout. Myth#5: Synthetic lubricants are not readily available. Untrue. This may have been the case two decades ago when AMSOIL and Mobil1 were the only real choices, but today nearly every major oil company has added a synthetic product to their lines. This in itself is a testament to the value synthetics offer. Myth #6: Synthetic lubricants produce sludge Untrue. In point of fact, synthetic motor oils are more sludge resistant than their petroleum counterparts, resisting the effects of high temperatures and oxidation. In the presence of high temperatures, two things happen. First, an oil's lighter ingredients boil off, making the oil thicker. Second, many of the complex chemicals found naturally in petroleum base stocks begin to react with each other, forming sludge, gums and varnishes. One result is a loss of fluidity at low temperatures, slowing the timely flow of oil to the engine for vital engine protection. Further negative effects of thickened oil include the restriction of oil flow to critical areas, greater wear and loss of fuel economy. Because of their higher flash points, and their ability to withstand evaporation loss and oxidation, synthetics are much more resistant to sludge development. Myth #7: Synthetics can't be used with catalytic converters or oxygen sensors. Untrue. In fact the very low ash content of synthetics will extend the life of every exhaust system component. Myth #8: Synthetics void warranties. Untrue. No major manufacturer of automobiles specifically bans the use of synthetic lubricants. In point of fact, increasing numbers of high performance cars are arriving on the showroom floors with synthetic motor oils as factory fill. Which may not make the dealers too happy since oil changes usually lead to other service work. Myth #9: Synthetics last forever. Untrue. Although some experts feel that synthetic base stocks themselves can be used forever, it is well known that eventually the additives will falter and cause the oil to require changing. However, by "topping off", additives can be replenished. Through good filtration and periodic oil analysis, synthetic motor oils protect an engine for lengths of time far beyond the capability of non synthetics. Myth #10: Synthetics are too expensive. Untrue. Tests and experience have proven that synthetics can greatly extend drain intervals, provide better fuel economy, reduce engine wear and enable vehicles to operate with greater reliability. All these elements combine to make synthetic engine lubricants more economical that conventional non synthetics. In Europe, synthetics have enjoyed increasing acceptance as car buyers look first to performance and long term value rather than initial price. As more sophisticated technology places greater demands on today's motor oils, we will no doubt see an increasing re-evaluation of oil buying habits in this country as well. Conclusions Since their inception, manufacturers of synthetic motor oils have sought to educate the public about the facts regarding synthetics, and the need for consumers to make their lubrication purchasing decisions based on quality rather than price. As was the case with microwave ovens or electric lights, a highly technological improvement must often overcome a fair amount of public skepticism and consumer inertia before it is embraced by the general population. But the word is getting out as a growing number of motorists worldwide experience the benefits of synthetic lubrication. The wave of the future, in auto lubes, is well under way. For the environmental enrthusiasts, the use of synthetics could reduce waste oil disposal by 80%, so if environment is your thing, then synthetic lubricants should be your choice. As a footnote, we have tried to sell expensive synthetics on the environmental argument, with no great success. Unless you can also show an economic advantage, the general public will not invest.