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View of aluminum rolling mill operation: Link to photo information
In aluminum rolling mill operations like this one, Alcoa, Inc., tested ARS’s new biobased metalworking fluid and preferred it to the petroleum-based lubricants. Image courtesy Alcoa, Inc.

Metalworking Lube From Soy Oil

By Jan Suszkiw
May 8, 2006

A biodegradable metalworking fluid derived from soybean oil is earning high marks in trials by Alcoa, Inc., a global supplier of primary and fabricated aluminum products.

The Pittsburgh-based company is conducting the trials under a five-year, cooperative research and development agreement involving a team led by chemist Sevim Erhan at the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill.

The partnership began in 2001 when Alcoa technical consultant Ronald Reich contacted the ARS team about the feasibility of developing metalworking fluids from biobased resources rather than petroleum, which is nonrenewable. The fluids are critical to Alcoa's hot and cold flat-rolling operations, which produce aluminum sheets for everything from beer cans to aircraft-wing panels.

Alcoa sought a biobased formulation that readily breaks down in the environment and comes from a domestic resource, such as oilseed crops. Furthermore, the method for producing it had to be economic and nonpolluting. And, of course, the biobased fluid had to meet all industry criteria for safety and performance.

The ARS team's first step was to examine the chemical structures that give mineral-oil-based metalworking fluids their functional properties. Then they had to keep those observations in mind in making a biobased equivalent, which they did using modified soy oil and antioxidants for oxidative stability.

According to Erhan, who leads the ARS center's Food and Industrial Oil Research Unit, they chose soy oil because it's plentiful, home-grown and chemically versatile to work with. After evaluating several soy-based formulations, Alcoa chose one for a first round of tests at its aluminum-continuous casting plant in Reno, Nev. Operators there who evaluated the formulation were so pleased, according to Reich, they promptly substituted it for their synthetic fluids.

The soy-based formulation also performed well this past December in large-scale trials involving a reversing-mill process at Alcoa's Lancaster, Penn., plant.

Read more about the research in the May 2006 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.