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ARS and Industry Test New Vegetable Oils as Industrial Lubricants

By Linda McGraw
March 26, 2001

Several newly developed vegetable oils--from soybeans, canola, corn, sunflower, lesquerella, and meadowfoam--could replace more expensive and less biodegradable synthetic chemicals for industrial uses, according to an ARS chemist in Peoria, Ill.

Researchers at ARS' National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria have developed and tested more than 50 new fluids derived from vegetable oils. They have also turned these vegetable-oil based fluids into replacements for petroleum-based materials.

Under a research agreement with Caterpillar Inc., in Peoria, the ARS scientists are learning which of their 50 plus new fluids have the most potential as base oils for lubricants. So far, two have been found to perform as well as petroleum-based lubricants, according to Sevim Z. Erhan, leader of oil chemical research at NCAUR. The payoff: U.S. agriculture benefits by increasing the demand for U.S.-grown agricultural products.

Environmental concerns have created a high demand for biodegradable lubricants and hydraulic fluids, but only two percent of the hydraulic fluids in bulldozers, tractors and heavy equipment is biodegradable.

The ARS approach might help make the use of biodegradable lubricants more successful. Rather than develop a final lubricant for a specific use, Erhan and her colleagues make simple chemical modifications to vegetable oils and test them for improvements before adding lubricating additives. These modifications enable a biodegradable product to perform nearly as well as a synthetic one, but at lower cost.

Biodegradable vegetable base oils cost about 35 cents a pound. In contrast, lubricant manufacturers face costs ranging from 25 cents for a base of mineral oil to $1.50 a pound for a base of synthetic esters.

Caterpillar engineers are testing the performance of one of the ARS-developed base oils.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency for the USDA.

Scientific contact: Sevim Z. Erhan, ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Peoria, Ill., phone (309) 681-6531, fax (309) 681-6686,