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Biodegradable Hydraulic Fluid Nears Market

By Linda McGraw
April 19, 2000

A new vegetable-based biodegradable hydraulic fluid for use in heavy equipment is moving toward commercialization. Agricultural Research Service scientists in Peoria, Ill., are producing industrial-sized quantities of starting material--the basis for making biodegradable lubricants--from sunflower oil fatty acids. The industrial scale-up production is being done in a recently renovated pilot plant at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR).

ARS chemists Terry A. Isbell and Steven C. Cermak made hydraulic fluid that contains estolides, which are fatty acids from high-oleic oilseeds like sunflower and safflower. The ARS researchers received a U.S. patent on the technology in February.

Technically, hydraulic fluids don’t lubricate mechanical systems; instead, they transfer pressure in machinery to activate motion, such as a moving crane or a blade. But sunflower oil can replace petroleum-based hydraulic fluids, which do not degrade well.

Construction equipment manufacturers, like Caterpillar Tractor Co., headquartered in Peoria, began seeking biodegradable alternatives in response to tighter environmental regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Other scientists at the Peoria research facility are engaged in trials with Caterpillar to test biobased hydraulic fluids and biodiesel fuels in heavy equipment.

Sunflower oil estolides produce a clear fluid that pours well at below-freezing temperatures, making this hydraulic fluid desirable for engine operation during cold weather, according to Isbell.

The work was done under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Lambent Technologies of Chicago. Lambent is seeking licensing rights to market the product commercially.

ARS is the chief research agency for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: Terry A. Isbell, National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, 1815 N. University Street, Peoria, IL 61604; phone (309) 681-6235; fax (309) 681-6524,