Delaware researchers report lubricants breakthrough

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In Delaware, researchers have devised a production route for lubricant base oils using non-food biomass.

The work, carried out at University of Delaware-led Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation and partner organizations, used catalysis to influence the lubricants’ weight, size distribution, branching, and specifications.

Potential feedstocks for the process include wood, switchgrass, and fatty acids from vegetable oils and animal fats. Lubricants are commonly made from petroleum base oils in processes that have large environmental footprints. Producing specified lubricants is also difficult and expensive, so reaching certain specifications often requires additives.

“This is one of the first attempts to make renewable lubricants from abundant raw materials, and in a very precise chemical way so that the architecture of these large molecules is dialed in, something unachievable using crude oil,” says Dion Vlachos, founder and director of CCEI and the Allan and Myra Ferguson Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “The product is clearly a high-performance material with tunable properties, unlike anything in the market.”

The global market for lubricants is estimated at $60-plus billion annually, with applications including industrial machinery, agricultural equipment, and aerospace.

CCEI’s work has been published in a recent issue of Science Advances.