Used lubricating oil in India: treasure or trash? (RI 2023)

To achieve smooth writing, one must eliminate resistance between pen and paper, right? This resistance to the motion is nothing but a phenomenon known as ‘friction’.

Sahil Bhargavaa and Neha Sharma
IFP Petro Products (P) Ltd

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Similarly, this friction does wonders for machinery applications when it comes to clutches, belts, pulleys, and vehicle braking systems. However, it can create situations where gears, shafts, bearing support systems, and the interface of piston rings experience undesirable losses of power or mechanical energy.

To protect the machine elements from excessive friction and its after-effects, an entity is added to minimise friction called ‘lubricant’ (comprising ~90% base oil and ~10% additives). Conventional base oil production methods are energy intensive, consume a diminishing fossil fuel resource, and place a large burden on the environment. Used oil containing a high percentage of high viscosity index and low pour point base oil represents a valuable resource, and its proper management should be given the most attention.

For an oil recycling process to be sustainable, the social and economic aspects surrounding a given project must complement the environmental benefits. Factors that support re-refining as a more sustainable option for used oil management include contributions to local job creation, regional or national energy security and competition in the lubricating oil market by replacing foreign production increasingly with local production. However, the key enabler for re-refining is a cost-effective and eco-friendly technology that produces consistently high-quality and high-value products. Re-refining used oil into base oil (lubricants without additives) has benefits associated with reducing the need to produce base oil from crude oil sources and avoiding emissions associated with used oil disposal.

Automobiles are the world’s biggest consumers of lubricants. With car manufacturers pushing endlessly to meet tightening efficiency and pollution standards, the car market drives the way in which oil companies produce base oils, accounting for the maximum share of volume of engine oil. When we analyse engine oil, approximately 75-85% of its volume consists of base oil. The remainder is a package of additives that confers properties essential to protecting the moving parts of vehicle engines. Viscosity modifiers, anti-oxidants, and corrosion inhibitors are a few of the ingredients ensuring that engine oils meet the auto industry’s performance specifications. Base oils themselves confer important properties to lubricants and are much more than mere carriers for other ingredients.

Present-day Group II base oils are the most commonly used base oils in plants, making up 47% of the capacity of plants. This compares to 21% for both Group II and III base oils just a decade ago. Currently, Group III accounts for less than 1% of the capacity in plants. Group I base oils previously made up 56% of the capacity compared to 28% in today’s plants.

Recycling, protection of the environment, and carbon footprint reduction for a sustainable future – these objectives can be met with re-refined base oils, and producers must be in a position to offer the lubricant industry interchangeability with conventional Group I, II, and III base stocks. In addition, OEMs and lubricant manufacturers need to adopt eco-design approaches involving re-refined products. Clearly, the re-refining approach has a number of sustainability benefits. Not only does it have high yields, but according to the API, it uses some 50% less energy than required.

In India, there are 36,165 industries, and they produce 6,232,507 metric tonnes of hazardous waste (HW) annually. However, the generation of HW is highest in the country; waste that can be recycled contributes to the most popular HW treatment method, with 49.55%, followed by landfill disposal (43.78%) and incineration (6.67%), respectively. The Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling & Trans boundary Movement) Rules, 2008 finalised the processes that produce HW, wherein spent oil (used and waste oil) has been classified as highly polluting (red category).

In India, roughly 257 registered spent oil (used/waste oil) recycling facilities are located in 124 districts and 19 states, with a combined capacity of 1.39 MMT. To address this issue of waste management, various legislative strategies, including most the recent Extended Producer Responsibility, have been published by the government of India to help the government bring waste oil collection and recycling under the aegis of the formal sector.

The product produced after the re-refining of used oil is known as re-refined base oil (RRBO), which has similar properties to virgin base oils (VBO) and hence can be blended with VBO in certain proportions, say a minimum of 25%. The re-refining of used lubricants results in environmental and economic benefits. Re-refining used oil to manufacture base oil consumes less energy than base oils produced through a conventional crude oil refining process (66% less energy is consumed), along with an 81% benefit in carbon footprint. The generic steps of handling used oil involve safe handling, storage, re-refining, dispatch/blending of RRBO, and careful disposal of residue as per prevailing environmental stipulations.

As per the Environmental Protection Agency, re-refining used oil is the preferred form of recycling because it closes the recycling loop by reusing the oil to make the same product that it was when it started out, using less energy and less virgin oil. This article is a concise discussion about used oil re-refining, the circular economy, sustainability, and the vital need to apprise the importance of used oil re-refining in order to save the earth and make India self-reliant.

This short article originally appeared in the 2023Refining India Newspaper, which you can VIEW HERE

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