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Is Your Synthetic Motor Oil Really Synthetic?

There is a disturbing trend in the oil industry that is misleading consumers. That trend is the playing of word games with the use of the word “synthetic” on motor oil labels.

The following article is a reprint from the August 2000 issue of “Lubricants World”, an oil industry trade magazine. This information is usually not available to most consumers.

AMSOIL continues to use the highest quality basestocks in its motor oils and will always put quality and performance before price. AMSOIL costs more than other brands but you always get more for your money than you will with the other brands. That is why AMSOIL outperforms the other brands in the NOACK Volatility Test and the Four-Ball Wear Test. THAT is why AMSOIL is THE extended drain oil. AMSOIL is the “TRUE” synthetic.

Subject: Article in Lubricants World August 2000 by Katherine Bui

Marketers Take Advantage of "Synthetic" Ruling

Last year, Castrol (Swingdon, U.K.) and Mobil (Fairfax, VA) brought the debate over what is “synthetic” into view, as Mobil challenged Castrol’s replacement of polyalphaolephins (PAOs) with hydroisomerized waxes in their synthetic formulations. Exactly one year after the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ ruling in April 1999, upholding Castrol’s position that wax isomerates could be called synthetic, Petro-Canada (Toronto) advertised it would be referring to its very high viscosity index (VHVI) basestocks as a synthetic in the North American market. These products fall into the same API group (Group III) as wax isomerates, but could vary significantly in quality from wax isomerates. This market roar by Petro-Canada has carried a quiet undertone of moves from PAO to VHVI technology by several engine oil marketers.

The definition of synthetics aside, cost factors and performance continue to drive marketers to carefully asses the use of PAOs and Group III stocks (VHVIs). In the past year, several marketers have made the jump from PAOs to VHVI-based "synthetics." VHVIs cost approximately half what PAOs do and, according to VHVI producers, perform at a level comparable to PAOs in formulated oils. Yet, Mobil 1, which has the strongest hold on the synthetic market (estimated by one analyst at 60.4%) and factory-fill contracts with Corvette and Porsche, continues to dominate the overall synthetic market with its PAO technology. On the other hand, Castrol, whose market share of Syntec synthetic oil was virtually nonexistent 6 years ago, now has more than 20% of the market.

Even ExxonMobil could not resist the appeal of competitive pricing. It released a new synthetic blend that combines PAO technology with a "high-quality conventional oil" in February.

If the market projections are any indicator, simply using the word "synthetic" in any shape or fashion may guarantee a piece of the pie. Synthetics and semi-synthetics make up only a niche 3%-6% of the automotive oil market (June LW, p.30). ExxonMobil holds the largest share in the market, followed by Castrol, Pennzoil-Quaker State, and Valvoline.

Demand, however is expected to grow 5.7% per year, to 115 million gallons in 2003, because of increased desire for high-performance products, longer drain intervals, and lower emission formulations, according to estimates from The Freedonia Group (Cleveland). However, at least on market analysis says the consumer's lack of knowledge about synthetics and the higher cost of the finished product compared with conventional oil are not conductive to growth. The overall conventional motor oil market is projected to remain flat.

Making the Move from PAO to VHVI

Current market trends, cost, and the "open-door" policy established by the NAD ruling have attracted a number of marketers this past year to the VHVI technology and use of the term "synthetic."

Castrol's substitution of wax isomerates for PAO after December 1997 was the basis of the contoversal ruling by the NAD regarding the marketing use of the word "synthetics." But with its buyout by BP Amoco, Castrol may have to re-evaluate the components of its formulation relative to the value of supply chain. BP has been one of the larger refiners and producers of PAO. LW was unable to obtain comments from Castrol at press time.

However, BP Amoco Chemicals' Joe Svoboda, PAO market manager, says, "Castrol has basically been set up as a stand alone business unit within BP. Its position on Group III vs. Group IV will be based on what is best for its business." He notes that "Castrol is a leading global marketer of high-performance lubricants. Its position on PAO likely differs from region to region - particularly in Europe, where stringent lubricant performance requirements often mandate the use of PAO."

Brent Lok, production manager for base oils at Chevron Products Co. (San Ramon, CA), says, "We struggle with a similar situation in that we produce both PAOs and VHVIs. However, I think that the marketplace often dictates the operations, and the companies often have very little choice in the matter."

Valvoline (Lexington, KY), which declines to detail the type of base oil technology it uses, continues to advertise its VR1 Racing Synthetic Motor Oil as a "blend of thermally stable base oils."

VHVI refiners such as Chevron Products, which holds the licensing rights to the hydroisomerization technology (Isodewaxing), says they have seen an increase in sales of Group IIIs based on "cost/performance balances." "We have seen a huge upswing in the sales activity of our Group III base oils that could be measured in folds," says Lok. "Even with increased sales activity, many in the industry are still in a gestation period, where additive companies along with researchers are tinkering with the packages and formulations to address this switch." He says the big driver for change is the cost/value tradeoff in all synthetic lubricant segments. Specifically in the passenger car motor oil (PCMO) segment, GF-3 offers a window of opportunity for formulators to reevaluate their basestock choices because reformulation will be necessary to meet the new performance specifications, he says.

Pennzoil-Quaker State (Houston) Product Manager James Newson told LW during an interview 2 months ago that the company is currently using PAOs to formulate its full synthetic. “

"Since the beginning of this issue, we have looked at every option at a very detailed level." He says. "And we have found some of the nonconventional synthetics very intriguing."

76 Lubricants (Costa Mesa, CA), a marketer of synthetics both in the PCMO and industrial oil segments of the industry, currently produces a "limited slate of synthetics" formulated with PAOs. However the company admits, research into the use of VHVI in ongoing. "We will likely be offering such products in the near future," says Steve Tarbox, 76 Lubricants' product manager for engine oils and automatic transmission fluids (ATFs). "Moving some existing product formulations from PAO to Group III basestocks always requires additional testing to both comply with any product licensing requirements (engine oils and ATFs for example) and also to provide existing customers the assurance and documentation that familiar products still provide the full range of performance benefits they have come to know and expect from their synthetic lubricant." Tarbox says adherence to American Petroleum Institute (API; Washington) and ATF licensing practices also precludes 76 Lubricants from making changes in certain product families without assuming significant test costs.

Petro-Canada, which initiated the recent public marketing of VHVI synthetics, announced on June 8 that it had completed the testing for its specialty base fluid in a 5W-40 grade engine oil. The test was conducted on a formulation designed to meet the VW 502/505 specification, with 30% VHVI in place of PAO basestock.

"With this new certification, we offer blenders an alternative specialty base fluid that provides increased performance at a less expensive price," says Henry Fuchs, marketing manager for specialty base fluids and automotive lubricants at Petro-Canada. Fuchs says the company will continue to develop products that will meet specifications in Europe.

As part of its claims, Petro-Canada says the company uses "the unique patented HT Severe Hydrocracking, Hydroisomerization and Hydro-Finishing process to produce the clear, colorless base fluid that is 99.9% pure and highly isoparaffinic." The company also says the "high-quality" base oil minimizes the effects of aromatics, sulfur, and nitrogen impurities removed, and balances a high viscosity index with low temperature fluidity and oxidative and thermal stability. At press time, LW had been unable to obtain a comment from Petro-Canada about marketing strategies for its new product.

"I don't expect we will see the lubricant marketers advertising components of the synthetic as we see here," says Lok. "Marketers are more interested in marketing the performance and their brand."

Mobil 1, whose PAO technology was one of the many trade secrets that changed hands during the merger between Exxon and Mobil, remains loyal to PAOs. However, even ExxonMobil could not resist the appeal of competitive pricing. It released a new synthetic blend that combines the PAO technology with a "high-quality conventional oil" in February of this year.

"Since Mobil has the most experience with the PAO technology, their ability to manufacture a blended, semi-synthetic product would probably offer them some advantage in the automotive market," says Jerry Shelby, president of Lubrication Consultant and Lubrecon (Houston). LW was unable to obtain comment from ExxonMobil about its PAO technology by press time.

Mark Pernik, global business manager for Chevron Chemical Company LLC, says his company has not seen PAOs displaced out of PCMO applications, though he admits Chevron Chemical is not a big player in the PCMO market. "Still, the VWT4 standard in Europe has demonstrated that PAO sales have not skewed and have in fact increased in position," says Pernik.

In addition, BP Amoco Chemicals' Svoboda says, "We have seen some tempering of growth for PAO in North America. We attribute this to the increasing availability of Group IIIs. However, on an international level, PAO demand continues to grow at a rapid pace. PAO in Europe is more than double that of North America. Europe continues to be a strong growth engine for PAO. This is based on the European OEM (original equipment manufacturer) drive for higher performance and by environmental considerations, such as emission reduction and extended drain intervals." He agrees with Pernik that the PAO market remains strong in Europe and that eventually the rest of the world will follow the higher performance requirements established there.

The primary downside to the NAD ruling and any resulting replacement of PAOs with VHVIs, says Svoboda, "is that North American PCMO consumers will not be getting the higher quality performance level offered by the PAO. Despite claims of equivalent performance, PAO continues to maintain its superior performance over Group IIIs under extreme operating conditions, particularly with regard to low-temperature performance and high-temperature oxidative stability."

Yet, when LW asked several industry experts about the NAD ruling, their feelings regarding market effects were mixed (LW, Oct. 1999, p. 30; Nov. 1999, p. 35). A Castrol representative then stated the VHVIs would be competitive with PAOs and that the consumer would benefit from that competition.

A PAO expert disagreed, saying the NAD decision would have minimal impact on the formulation of synthetics. "The quality of Group III products in inconsistent, and their physical properties are different from one manufacturer to the next," he says. If the industry heads in the direction of replacing PAO with VHVI, he says, "consumers will be misled and the high margin niche that has been developed by present-day synthetics will erode."

Barrett Cupples, a consulting scientist who worked with PAOs at Chevron Chemical for 20 years, cautions marketers against directly switching from PAOs to VHVIs without adequate testing. "According to API base oil guide lines, Group III stocks may not simply be substituted for PAOs in motor oil formulation," he says. "Any switch will require extensive testing to ensure that the final product fully meets the requirements of that lubricant."

Further downstream, the players in the synthetic PCMO market - Castrol, Pannzoil-Quaker State, and Valvoline - have each released reformulations and new blends in the past several months. The reason for this interest, according to one industry market analysis, is the competitive nature of the market, the projection for market growth, and the re-awakening of cost savings in blends.

"Though synthetics will exhibit strong growth through the end of the 20th century," says The Freedonia Group, "higher prices in comparison to traditional petroleum-based products, as well as competition from lubricants formed from hydrocracking processing, will limit their gains; however, the introduction of synthetic blends will help offset the price disadvantage of synthetics as blends offer higher performance than conventional lubricants at a lower cost than full synthetics."

Retail shelf prices have remained constant despite changes in formulation. Mass merchandise shelf prices for synthetic PCMOs average between $3 and $4 per quart. In the first quarter, the price for a quart of Mobil 1 synthetic was approximately $4.09. The cost of Valvoline SynPower was slightly higher, at $4.22.

"At an average price point of $3.89 per quart for full-synthetic oil, these products attract a small segment of users," says Larry Solomon of Valvoline. "Past trends indicate that the full-synthetic market is a small segment. There is no reason to believe that this will change in the future."

Lok points out the synthetic lubricant market is relatively price insensitive. "The customers in this market are more willing to pay for the value of the product, despite the cost," he says. "In contrast, the PCMO suppliers are continually looking for cost efficiencies in their production, as long as it comes with no sacrifice to product performance."

Industrial Synthetics Seek Extreme Operating Conditions

Trends in demand in the industrial sector for synthetics differ from those in the automotive oil market because of increasing requests for higher performance and specialty products. According to The Freedonia Group, the bulk of the synthetic market is composed of industrial lubricants and demand for synthetic industrial lubricants is forecast to increase 4.8% annually, to 72 million gallons in 2003.

This growth has Equilon (Houston) focusing its synthetic marketing on the industrial market. Earl Blanchette told LW 2 months ago the company saw a bigger growth in the industrial market for synthetics. The company, as reported, introduced several new products within the past year, including a new compressor oil.

Because of the drive for energy efficiency, extended drains, and environmental factors in this sector, marketers of industrial synthetics will have to pay closer attention to the performance factors in formulation, perhaps with more emphasis than in the automotive segment.

Industrial synthetic oils currently us a variety of base oils, such as PAOs, diesters, polyalkylene glycols (PAGs), and phosphate esters, among others. In hydraulic applications, circulating oils, and turbine oils. some industrial oil producers are looking at VHVI as a replacement for PAO.

Lok says, however, that increased activity in this market also shows that the switch from PAOs and VHVIs is happening. "Over the last year, sales of Group III basestocks at Chevron Products have increased, particularly into a wide variety of industrial oil applications."

Much, if any, move from PAOs to VHVIs in industrial synthetics may depend on the oxidation stability factor. "If the high-VI stocks can obtain the oxidation stability of a PAO with a comparable performance, I think the industrial segment would really consider that type of base oil as a replacement for conventional synthetics, especially when you add the lower cost factor," says Shelby. "However, I just don't see [VHVIs] making as big a splash in the industrial segment as synthetics. They will evolve into the market but will not be marketed in the same way as synthetics are in the automotive sector" He suggests consumers in colder climates will be more willing to accept the VHVI formulation if they have viscometrics similar to those of true synthetics.

But industrial synthetics in general have not had the type of success that automotive synthetics have had, according to Shelby. "The synthetics would only be a factor for those applications where longer life, high temperature, and reduced downtime are big factors," he says. "They don't have as much of a foothold in the industrial market as in automotive."

Mobil, which formulates with PAOs, diesters, and PAGs, does have the larger foothold in the market, with its full line of gear oils, circulating oils, and hydraulic oils. Houghton International (Valley Forge, PA) also produces a glycol-based synthetic hydraulic fluid (Houghsaf) that competes with the Mobil poduct.

Fire safety is a big issue in the hydraulic market, emphasizing higher flash point and fire point.

Another area of focus is the environment, which Equilon is emphasizing in its marketing of vegetable-based synthetics. Likewise, reported Chemical Engineering in July, American Synthol (Roswell, GA) is marketing its New Technology Synthetic Base (NTSB) stock by boasting that it is more biodegradable and thermally stable than PAO. According to Joe Green, president of American Synthol. NTSB can be formulated to be comparable to PAO by using improved stabilizers.


The synthetic market in general has seen an active year of new blends, new product releases, and formulation changes. It remains a market stricken by discrepancies in market share, cost, and growth, but the word "synthetic" retains the image of higher performance and product development. Just as divided as the debate, market analysts are torn by projections for growth and whether a big push for growth is worthwhile given the size of the segment. There is little doubt that a trend is appearing in the synthetic market, but where that trend will go remains to be seen.

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Why Motor Oil Deteriorates

It is common knowledge that, at some point, engine oil must be changed. It's something that is preached relentlessly to vehicle owners by vehicle manufacturers, quick lubes and oil companies. But consumers are widely unaware of what exactly makes oil changes necessary.

Many factors contribute to a motor oil's demise, but it is essentially the accumulation of contaminants in the oil and chemical changes in the oil itself that make a motor unfit for further service. With time, it is inevitable that the oil will be contaminated by dirt or sludge, or succumb to the extreme pressures or temperatures found inside an engine. AMSOIL Motor Oils are formulated with the industry's most advanced synthetic base stocks and additive packages to combat the forces that deteriorate conventional oils. (read more)

What is the NOACK Volatility Test?
Volatization is a term used to describe what happens to a fluid as it is heated to the point it begins to "boil off." Upon reaching a certain temperature, oil will begin to lose some of its lighter weight molecules as they "boil off" and leave heavier weight molecules behind. Not only does this cause higher oil consumption, this process can also cause increased viscosity making the oil more difficult to circulate through the lubrication system. (read more)

Quality Takes Priority at AMSOIL

The AMSOIL chemical laboratory plays an important role in the daily operations at AMSOIL headquarters. The lab fulfills tech service requests, performs competitor testing and comparisons, and works on the research and development of products at AMSOIL. One of the most important jobs at the lab is quality control. AMSOIL is known for formulating high-quality products and the AMSOIL chemists ensure that everything coming in and going out meets AMSOIL standards. How do they do it? (read more)

Premium AMSOIL Synthetic Motor Oils offer the longest drain intervals on the market, unsurpassed protection and performance that effectively extends equipment life and improved fuel economy, saving customers money at the pump and reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

"AMSOIL INC. warrants that the use of its lubricants will not cause mechanical damage to any mechanically sound equipment when AMSOIL INC. products are used in full compliance with the company's recommendations and instructions."


AMSOIL synthetic motor oils are formulated to surpass engine test specifications, offering protection far greater than competing motor oils for extended drain intervals. Most synthetic oil manufacturers make no claim to extended drain intervals, deferring to the maintenance schedule provided by the vehicle manufacturer. With its unparalleled oil and warranty program, AMSOIL offers consumers unprecedented protection and economics.

Another AMSOIL First

More than 20 years ago, AMSOIL began using the NOACK volatility test as a comparison tool and measurement of quality. Back then, nearly every oil tested side-by-side with AMSOIL synthetic motor oils failed, and those that passed barely squeaked by. Other oil companies paid no attention to NOACK results until Ford Motor Company made it a requirement for service fill oils, validating what AMSOIL had said all along.

THE NOACK Volatility Test
The NOACK Volatility Test determines the evaporation loss of lubricants in high temperature service. The more motor oils vaporize, the thicker and heavier they become, contributing to poor circulation, reduced fuel economy and increased oil consumption, wear and emissions. AMSOIL Synthetic Motor Oil resists high temperature volatization better than other motor oils. AMSOIL Synthetic Motor Oil maintains peak fuel efficiency and reduces oil consumption and emissions.

AMSOIL Now An ISO Certified Manufacturer
AMSOIL recently received ISO 9001:2000 certification of our Quality Management System (QMS). NSF International Strategic Registrations is the registrar that has verified our QMS meets the requirements of the ISO 9001:2000 standard, the most widely utilized quality standard throughout the world for quality management systems. ISO standards are used by over 300,000 companies worldwide setting rigorous standards for businesses, government and industry.

ISO 9001:2000 is applicable to any manufacturing and service organization providing a framework for system development that focuses on the customer, quality system performance and ongoing improvement. AMSOIL received ISO 9001:2000 registration under the scope: synthetic lubricants blending, packaging, and other fulfillment directly associated with lubricant product.

The ISO certification puts AMSOIL in line with some of the most efficient companies in the world. It is further assurance that the products and services AMSOIL provides will continue to maintain the high level of quality the company always demanded.

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