by Robert Sanborn on Wed, Sep 13, 2006, who was a member of the STLE Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers for 15 years.
With all of the negative articles about oil additives, which have been written and supported extensively by special interest groups, its time to tell the real truth about oil additives. In most cases they perform a positive function and with regular use can provide a number of benefits to vehicles and equipment.
Tested Additives vs Marketing Companies
First, lets get one thing clear, it’s important to distinguish from oil additives developed by companies that have been extensively tested, and others, usually made by individuals, without such testing and documentation. Anyone can put an additive package together and have a label made. There are many on the market, which have no real testing, even though, they claim they do. This is where additives have gotten a bad name.
On the other hand there are a number of companies that sell additives that have extensive research and development teams that have tested their additive packages. For example, Lubrizol www.lubrizol.com whose revenues were over 4 billion dollars for 2005 specializes in additive packages including aftermarket engine and fuel treatments. Anyone doing this kind of volume is not selling snake oil to millions of dumb consumers—just doesn’t happen. And they are only one of several that are very large. Others include Oronite, Ethyl, Infineum, Bardahl, Wynn’s, SFR, Power Up, STP, Slick 50. This is just a partial list of companies that have well documented additive products.
Motor Oil Contains Additives
In actuality additives are used in most all lubricants, because even the best synthetic base oils cannot protect vital parts alone, as it’s the additives that do all of the work. Let’s concentrate on the internal combustion engine in looking at the need for additives. According to the American Petroleum Institute the powerful watchdog for the oil companies, “The temperatures and types of service under which an engine is operated vary markedly. Moderate-speed driving on short trips or stop-and-go driving in traffic uses only a fraction of the available engine power. Because the cooling systems must be capable of meeting the cooling requirements of the engine at high speeds, they may overcool the engine in short-trip driving. In such light-duty service engines and motor oils warm up slowly and often do not reach proper operating temperatures.
Under these conditions automatic chokes will provide the engine with the rich air-fuel mixture it needs to operate smoothly at cold temperatures, but this richness will result in incomplete combustion. Soot and partially oxidized hydrocarbons undergo further oxidation in the crankcase, forming sludge and varnish deposits. These may clog oil screens or plug oil rings, interfering with oil circulation and control, or they may cause hydraulic valve lifters and valves to stick. Corrosive acids are formed that cause wear on piston rings, cylinders, and occasionally on piston skirts. Steam from combustion condenses on cylinder walls and drains into the crankcase. Water, often in combination with acidic gases, may cause valve lifters to rust and stick. It may also create rust deposits on piston pins, rocker arm shafts, and valve stems. Liquid fuel leaking past the piston rings dilutes the oil and reduces its lubricating value. These are some of the effects of engine operation at cold temperatures.
In contrast legal speed limit driving and long trips allow the engine and oil to warm p properly. The choke is open, and the carburetor is feeding the cylinders with a lean, clean burning air-fuel mixture. As a result there little or no incomplete combustion to produce soot other residue. Under these conditions water compensation is not a problem, nor is dilution of the motor oil by raw fuel.” Additives have been developed to address these problems as most of us qualify much of time for driving in severe service conditions. Furthermore, the API goes on to say “Under some conditions it is impossible to maintain a continuous oil film between moving parts, and there is intermittent metal-to-metal contact between the high spots on sliding surfaces. Lubrication engineers call this boundary lubrication. Under these circumstances the load is only partially supported by the oil film. The oil film is ruptured, resulting in significant metal-to-metal contact. When this occurs, the friction generated between the surfaces can produce enough heat to cause on or both of the metals in contact to melt and weld together. Unless counteracted by proper additive treatment, the result is either immediate seizure or the tearing apart and roughening of surfaces.
Boundary lubrication conditions always exist during engine starting and often during the operation of a new or rebuilt engine. Boundary lubrication is also found around the top piston ring where oil supply is limited, temperatures are high, and a reversal of piston motion occurs.
Extreme pressure conditions can develop between heavily loaded parts from lack of lubrication, inadequate clearance, extreme heat, and sometimes as a result of using the wrong type or grade of lubricant for the operating conditions of the engine. Since motor oils do not contain extreme pressure agents this is an area that aftermarket additive manufacturers focus a lot of attention. In modern engines the valve train with its cams, valve lifters, push rods, valve stem tips, and parts of the rocker arms operate under conditions of extreme pressure because they carry heavy loads on very small contact areas. Unit loading, which may be as high as 200,000 pounds per square inch, is many times greater than the loads on the connecting rod bearings or on the piston pins.” Motor oils rarely contain extreme pressure additives, thus premature wear could take place. The preceding has laid the groundwork for the need for additives.
Additives to take care of the deposits and sludge, called detergent/dispersant additives, anti-oxidants to delay the effects of oxidation. Anti-foaming additives are important as if foaming occurs in a motor oil the film strength is reduced allowing wear. And since base oils alone cannot withstand the metal-to-metal contact inside an engine, anti-wear agents are needed. With acids there is also a need for corrosion inhibitors; and in reducing friction in hydrodynamic lubrication such as on the cylinder liners, where metal-to-metal contact does not occur, friction modifiers or lubricity additives are desired to improve engine efficiency and improve mileage.
Motor Oil Contains Additives, but are they Enough?
If additives are a necessity to reducing wear in an engine and are contained in motor oils, then that must be the end of the story right? Not quite. Few people know that the oil companies do not make the specifications for motor oil. They are required to make their motor oils to meet the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) specifications. Motor oil specifications are established by the International Lubricant Standardization and Approval Committee, which consists of the Big Three domestic car manufacturers as well as the Japanese car manufacturers. ILSAC defines the performance characteristics and the chemistry of the oil it will accept for use in its engines; and then the American Petroleum Institute (API) makes sure the oil sold by marketers displaying that label meets the definition.
This isn’t an easy process as the OEM’s are not best of friends as competitors, thus they have driven the cost of this highly political process into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Yes, just to come up with a new specification. ILSAC comes up with a series of Sequence Tests that a motor oil must pass to receive certification. The public is not aware of the fact that, a motor oil formulation going through the process, can fail a Sequence test two times and not have to re-formulate. If the formulation fails three times on a single Sequence test then it must be re-formulated and start over. To control how many additive companies that can supply the complete packages to meet the new warranty specification, ILSAC has proposed the testing process to cost a whopping 1.5 million dollars for diesel motor oil warranty, and over $500,000 for gasoline engine motor oil. That is assuming you pass on the first try other wise the costs can escalate.
With specifications changing so fast, only a few large companies can recover their cost of development in such a short time. When oil companies advertise they exceed the highest standard available it’s the only one so it’s also the lowest standard. Regardless of how good your motor oil is there is only one standard, currently GF-4 for gasoline engines and CJ-4 for diesel engines. There is no incentive to improve beyond the lowest passing standard because it costs money to add additives that do the work. Motor oil companies often cut additives to the core to exceed the standard by the narrowest of margins to cut costs and maximize revenues. In summary, the oil companies make their motor oils to the OEM’s standards not theirs!
Why Don’t OEMs Recommend Oil Additives?
Two questions are always asked when discussing oil additives and whether they work or not and they are: Why doesn’t the OEM’s recommend oil additives and why doesn’t the oil companies get into the additive business if they are so good.
First, it seems fairly obviously why the OEM’s do not want to recommend oil additives as they have spent millions of dollars protecting their engineering. When I say protecting their engineering I mean using a fluid to insure that the engine, on average, lasts as long as they engineered it to last. They are in the business of selling cars and they know to be competitive it has to last a certain amount of time, but then they want you to purchase a new car. They do not want to have to test other additive products as they have spent money to develop their specification.
This does not mean that oil additives can’t be beneficial as a Sequence Wear Test was run by SFR Corporation with the leading selling motor oil in the United States—once without the additive and once with the leading motor oil and 5% SFR’s additive package SFR 100. The test was run by a large testing facility certified to conduct tests for motor oil warranty approval. The results of these expensive tests showed that the additive package reduced the overall wear of the leading motor oil by 17% and on the exhaust lobe part of the test the results were an outstanding 80-90% reduction in wear using the additive.
When OEM’s are developing their own specifications they are not going to say their specification needs help in performance by using an additive as it’s against their best interest. However, no OEM will state that the use of an additive in itself will void a warranty. The reason is that they must run the battery of tests which costs from $500,000 to 1, 500,000 per test. This doesn’t mean that an additive could not hurt or destroy an engine and that is why the leading additive suppliers have performed extensive testing to validate their product.
If Oil Additives are so Good Why Don’t the Oil Companies Make Them?
Why aren’t the oil companies involved in the additive market? Truth is they are the leaders in the development of aftermarket oil additives. Many of the additives used in the aftermarket industry are actually purchased from the oil companies. The oil companies, with their big budgets, can provide hundreds of thousands of dollars of testing to validate additive performance. The public is unaware of this though as most all oil companies run their additive divisions as separate companies under their corporate umbrella. They include Infineum for Exxon/Mobil, Oronite for Chevron/Texaco and then there is Ethyl who is well known for its tetraethyl lead previously found in all gasoline. Shell has their own as does Castrol. Quaker State owned Slick 50 additive company, and I cannot see them buying this company if the product would not have any benefit as the liability would be too great if the products would not perform. Chevron sells Techron today an aftermarket gasoline treatment, Valvoline has marketed aftermarket additives as well as others including the additive leader Lubrizol.
One must realize the following: The oil companies make products to meet the OEM’s requirements not theirs. You could call an oil company up right now and ask if oil could be made better and your response would be similar to this: We have over 150 chemists in this building alone and if motor oil could be made better, we would be the ones to do it. On the other hand we could call their additive division and say we want a heavy duty performing oil that would out perform the current specification and they could fax you a product with hundreds of thousands of dollars of testing documentation.
It all boils down to special interest groups protecting their special interests. The OEM’s and the major oil companies all protect their interests. It’s hard for an oil company not to defend their oil as the best there is, but in reality we know the specification was created by the OEM. This is the main reason why so many articles have been posted about why additives do not work. A magazine writer doing an article on additives will go to a source that he or she thinks is an expert, and thus they call someone up at the oil company. That person reinforces that their oil is the best and doesn’t need additional additives. Even the specialty motor oil marketers such as Amsoil support the notion that oil additives are not needed. They do not want competition from additive companies because in their mind all you need is their oil. Unfortunately, being a (MLM) multi-level marketing company, most all are part-time, thus more laymen in the business than any other oil marketing company. Their dealers go to great lengths supporting articles that additives do not work. What a paradox, because if additives do not work, than why is their motor oil better than anyone else’s. Doesn’t take much thought to figure that one out.
Mobil Admits to Using Additional Additives
To support the issue of additives all one has to do is look at Mobil’s new marketing campaign. They still claim their oil meets GF-4 or the new specification that API certifies, but they are now calling for extended drain intervals. And, if you read anything about Mobil’s new products is that it has to do with additional additives being used, mainly detergents. From their literature it states: Mobil Clean 7500 is a synthetic blend formulation with a boosted level of cleaning performance, 18 percent beyond the level of even our premium Mobil Clean 5000 conventional motor oil, to keep your engine cleaner longer.
Additives are what make motor oil what it is and additives are what make aftermarket additive manufacturers their gains in performance. It’s all based on testing both engine and fleet tests. Additives have been around for years and auto parts stores devote entire rows of products related to additives. Additive manufacturers are seen as nuisances because the OEM’s engineer their products to last on average a certain amount of time and the oil companies make their products to meet the OEM’s needs. So if you want to find out about additives you wouldn’t ask the OEM’s or oil companies but the testing laboratories like Southwest Research Institute and Auto Research Laboratories Inc. that performs thousands of tests each year. I am including some links to additive suppliers and testing companies so that you can see the tremendous amount of data that is available from large substantial companies.
Written by Robert H. Sanborn, who was a member of the STLE Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers for 15 years.