Combustion Engines Catch New Spark --- Thinner oils improve efficiency, helping the old technology stay relevant as electric vehicles gain ground
Kent, Sarah; Dawson, Chester. Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]20 Nov 2017: B.1.
Big oil companies and giant auto makers are teaming up to preserve the internal combustion engine, as tough regulation and electric vehicles put the car industry's century-old technology at risk. Their secret weapon: high-tech engine oil.
Exxon Mobil Corp., BP PLC, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other oil companies are spending millions of dollars a year in concert with auto makers such as Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV to create the next generation of super-slick engine lubricants. They are betting that the new, thinner oils will help them squeeze even more efficiency out of traditional car engines, allowing them to comply with stricter environmental rules and remain relevant as new technologies such as zero-emission electric vehicles gain traction.
"It's really important that we are able to squeeze the lemon," said Andrew Hepher, vice president of global commercial technology at Shell. "The combustion engine has still got a long way to run."
The efforts come as the combustion engine faces new threats across the world. Countries including the U.K., France, China and India have signaled they plan to ban sales of vehicles with traditional engines in the coming decades. Tough new emissions restrictions to encourage the uptake of competitive technologies are set to come into force sooner.
Earlier this month, the European Union unveiled an aggressive proposal to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from cars and vans by 30% by 2030. Beijing wants 20% of China's total vehicle production and sales to be electric and hybrid vehicles by 2025. In the U.S., the Trump administration has faced significant pushback from some states and environmental activists after signaling it might relax Obama-era regulations to tighten vehicle emissions standards.
In response, car companies have promised to launch more fully electric vehicles in the next decade, including General Motors Co., which on Wednesday pledged to sell one million EVs annually by 2026. Oil multinationals are spending more on renewable-energy sources and, in some cases, investing in electric vehicles' recharging infrastructure. But such activities still make up a fraction of their sales. Most companies expect the combustion engine to remain dominant for decades to come, which means improving efficiency is crucial.
"If you can improve a few percent, that is very much worth doing," said Dave Hall, a vice president at Castrol, BP's lubricants subsidiary. "There's going to be a lot of internal combustion engines around for a long time."
Shell, meanwhile, has formed partnerships with Fiat Chrysler, among others, on next-generation lubricants. "Car makers are very, very heavily motivated to improve the economy of their fleet," said Shell's Mr. Hepher. Other efforts to enhance performance include adding gears to transmissions and making vehicles more aerodynamic.
Big oil companies have worked with car makers to develop better engine oils for decades, but efforts picked up speed in recent years as engineers pushed for ultrathin oils to help reduce friction and allow for more sophisticated engines. This new generation of lubricants is thinner than predecessors. The high-tech oils evaporate less easily and can operate at high temperatures and pressures.
As they are developed, they will be recommended for use on newer vehicles. An industry consortium is expected to grant its approval to "0W-16" grade motor oil in the U.S. early next year as a thinner alternative to the current standard-grade "5W-30" or "0W-20" used in most new vehicles.
The new lubricants are meant to help auto makers build smaller, turbocharged engines that are still quite powerful, resulting in efficiency gains close to 15% compared with older models, said David Tsui, project manager for energy at consulting firm Kline & Co. "You're trying to get these little engines to run at a jog pace, but with a really heavy load," he said.
Optimizing internal combustion engines could boost efficiency a further 25% -- a calculation that might tempt auto makers from spending more on electric-vehicle technology, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
Critics say there are limits to how much more efficient combustion engines can become. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts a shift toward electric vehicles is inevitable, forecasting that between 2025 and 2030, the cost of battery electric vehicles will fall below the cost of combustion engines. Boston Consulting Group estimates gasoline-only engines won't meet planned regulations in the U.S. and Europe as soon as 2020, resulting in penalties averaging $500 a vehicle by 2025.
Developing a new premium engine-oil grade can cost about $10 million, said Castrol's Mr. Hall.
The gains from engine oil alone are limited, however. Industry experts say the latest lubricants typically boost fuel economy less than 1%, mainly by reducing the amount of energy needed to pump a piston. Even so, it is a cost-effective solution.
"You can change the entire fleet fuel economy overnight," said Gary Parsons, a manager in charge of relationships with auto makers at Chevron Corp. subsidiary Oronite. "You may only gain a half-percent, but being able to do that overnight makes a lot of difference."
Credit: By Sarah Kent and Chester Dawson