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Synthetic Definitions of Synthetic

While AMSOIL believes that synthetic lubricants should be made from premium grade PAO synthetic base stocks, many lubricant manufacturers choose to use mineral oils as their basestocks, greatly impacting the quality and protective ability of their oils.

Consumers should be aware that different definitions of what a "Synthetic" oil is will determine the value of the product in protecting your equipment. AMSOIL believes that the bottom line is our products ability to protect your equipment.

The following articles from Lubes 'N' Greases, the recognized leading publication for the lubricants industry, outlines and details what the various manufacturers consider to be synthetic. What's important to note is that not all synthetics are truly synthetic.

The Synthetic Definition of Synthetics

by Thomas F. Glenn

Lubes 'N' Greases - July 2004

To the consumer, a synthetic lubricant that costs a lot and significantly outperforms the others, offering superior high- and low-temperature protection, the opportunity to significantly extend oil drain intervals, and "flat-out better lubricity and engine protection."

Consumers define it that way because that's what they were taught with the hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising spent by Mobil, Castrol, Quaker State, Pennzoil, Valvoline, Amsoil and others over the last several decades. Rather than defining synthetics based on oligomerization reactions, polymerized molecules, codified specifications and other technical jargon, marketers of synthetics knew how to speak the language consumers understand. They are the ones who shaped the consumer's definition and expectation of "synthetics." They did it with bold claims about fuel efficiency and drain intervals that few consumers were willing to test, but took comfort in knowing were there. And these marketers employed creative and compelling ads that spoke to both the real and perceived needs of consumers, on technical and emotional levels.

To the scientists, engineers, formulators and other industry insiders, the technical definition of synthetic lubricants meant that they were made with synthetic base stocks. In the past, the SAE J357 standard clearly defined these base stocks as being produced by chemical synthesis rather than by extraction or refinement of petroleum. The SAE dropped this definition, however, over controversy concerning very high viscosity index (VHVI) mineral base stocks in 1996.

In spite of this, there was an unspoken rule within the industry that synthetic engine oils were based on polyalphaolefin (PAO), usually blended with some ester to solubilize additives, aid in seal swell, and enhance lubricity. In industrial applications, synthetics covered the use of many different chemistries including PAO, esters polyglycols, silicone and other high-end, high-price base stocks.

Buth the technical definition for synthetics and assumptions about the use of PAO changed in 1997. This is when Castrol made the very daring and financially brilliant move to turn its back on the unspoken rule that synthetic motor oil must be formulated with PAO> I replaced the PAO/ester blend in its Syntec brand engine oil with VHVI Group III mineral base stock - at about half the cost. This enabled Castrol to significantly reduce its base stock costs for the product and increase its margins, while arguably delivering the same performance as with PAO.

Although Mobil challenged Castrol's use of the term "synthetic" for the new Syntec formulation by taking its case to the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus in 1999, it lost. The NAD, as most in the industry are aware, sided with Castrol. This gave the Syntec and therefore Group III the unofficial green light to compete on the same track as PAO and other synthetics.

Aside from some minor grumbling among purists in obscure blogs and on message boards, the NAD ruling and Castol's switch to Group II was, for the most part, a non-event at the consumer level. Consumers continued to define synthetics as "the good stuff" and demonstrated a growing willingness to pay a high premium for it.

The same cannot be said for what it did at the producer level. Here, it had a major impact. Within two years of the NAD ruling, money talked and most followed Castrol's walk, replacing millions of gallons of PAO with Group III in synthetic and synthetic-blend engine oils. PAO took a solid punch in the gut and it hurt.

This stirred up a hornet's nest of anger among PAO producers who stayed with PAO. And according to many, the angry buzz continues. There is still" raging controversy" in the industry about this issue, says one of the leading producers of synthetic base stocks, and the fight is far from over.

PAO proponents charge that Group III "hijacked the good name and reputation of synthetics; a reputation that was built on the hard work of PAO." Others say it's a classic case of "bait and switch" and consumers should be "outraged!" One finished-lubricant producer claims that Group IIIs do a "disservice" to the industry because they "dumb down" synthetics, and that consumers (if they knew) would turn away from synthetics because of it.

In addition, there is a grass-roots effort underway by the Synthetic Lubricants Council to band together interested parties to establish and promote a definition for "true synthetics" that distinguishes them as unique (and presumably better) compared to Group III. The Synthetic Lubricants Council, subject to its ChemStar panel guidelines.

It would be easy to conclude that all of this is simply the noise made by vanquished incumbents in response to a low-cost producer telling them to holster their high-priced guns and get out of Dodge. But such a conclusion masks real and concerning issues behind what clearly has become a synthetic definition of synthetics. This definition is increasingly being synthesized by marketers in an effort to capitalize on a non-technical definition ("good stuff, costs a lot") that has been internalized by consumers.

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How Much Synthetic's in that "Blend"?

by Thomas F. Glenn

Lubes 'N' Greases - September 2004

Synthetic blends of passenger car motor oil command a significant premium in the U.S. market, with the leading brands retailing for an average $2.30 a quart. When you compare that with the current average for conventional PCMO (about $1.60), it is clear that the "synthetic blend" concept appeals to consumers and garners considerable market value.

These lubricants represent a rapidly growing segment of the automotive engine oil market. Several viscosity grades (SAE 0W-X, 5W-20 and 5W-30) all but require the use of some synthetic base stock to reach the new GF-4 performance level. Demand for these grades is growing, too, as more automakers emphasize the fuel economy benefits of low-viscosity oils and recommend them for their new cars.

Pop Quiz for all you who make a living selling these high-value, premium-quality lubricants:

Q. How much synthetic is in a synthetic blend?

A. Correct!

Regardless of your answer, you are likely right. That's because there are no rules, regulations, standards or other precepts that govern how much "synthetic" a blend must contain. Instead, it's left to the company that blends and markets these products to decide. Rather than having to comply with restrictive definitions or limits set by SAE International, the American Petroleum Institute or any other standards organization or industry watch-dog, formulators have the freedom to do as they see fit when deciding how much synthetic to put in a synthetic blend. And what they see fit to do varies considerably.

Some - albeit very few - say the term "blend" implies to the consumer a 50/50 mix of conventional and synthetic base stock. Some further feel obligated to use PAO base stock for the synthetic half of the blend since PAO (polyalphaolefin) is what the consumer originally was sold on as being synthetic. They maintain that although you can reduce costs by replacing PAO with API Group III base stocks, it would be unethical to do so without first telling consumers about the change.

Then there are those who, although agreeing a blend should contain 50 percent synthetic base stock, maintain that there is no reason to use PAO since Group IIIs are synthetic base stocks and perform equally as well. In their minds, it's certainly not unethical to replace PAO with Group III; after all, Group IIIs were accepted as "synthetic" years ago by the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Moreover, since Group III costs about half as much as PAO, they save close to $2.00 a gallon on the costs of goods sold. Although this lower coast may not pass through to the consumer in the form of a lower price, they see it as a win/win for both the supplier and buyer.

Most lubricant manufacturers, however, take a different approach. Although they may elect to use Group III instead of PAO due to cost, the amount of "synthetic" base stock used in their blends often is reported to be lower. Instead of the expected 50 percent, these blends typically may contain 10 to 20 percent Group III blended with 80 to 90 percent conventionally refined base stock. This amount of synthetic base stock, advocates say, is sufficient to deliver "measurable performance advantages." In addition, they maintain this approach delivers optimum value because it strikes the best balance between cost and performance. Understandably, the cost of goods sold for manufacturers who take this approach is even lower than for those in the previous two examples.

Finally, there are a few who reportedly say that you don't actually have to use any synthetic base stock at all in a synthetic base stock at all in a synthetic blend. They assert that since additives comprise roughly 20 percent by volume of an engine oil and additives contain fully synthesized molecules, any engine oil containing additives constitutes a synthetic blend. By taking this approach they feel they can legitimately label most engine oils as "synthetic blends," and enjoy a manufacturing cost significantly below virtually everyone else in the business.

Most understandably will cry foul and say that this last approach is irresponsible, unethical and deceptive. Others, however, could counter that these charges are no more than mudslinging about where one elects to participate along a quality continuum of products that can comprise anywhere from 1 percent "synthetic" material. Unfortunately, they could be right, even when what they are doing is wrong for the consumer. Remember, there are no rules that govern how much synthetic a blend must contain. It's up to the company that blends and markets these products to decide.

Is it time to better define "blend" products? In the words of Lou Burke, manager, commercial lubricants, at ConocoPhillips, "Defining a minimum synthetic base oil content is vital for the synthetic blend category to have any true meaning in the market place."

Still unconvinced that this high-value lubricant category needs to be better defined? Here's Pop Quiz No. 2:

Q. How much synthetic is in a full synthetic?

A. Correct!

Tom Glenn is president of Petroleum Trends International, a market research and consulting firm, specializing in lubricant marketing, manufacturing and channel managment issues.

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For Synthetics, a Defining Event

Dear Lubes & Greases,

Re. Tom Glenn's excellent column in your July issue ("The Synthetic Definition of Synthetics," page 40):

My Webster's dictionary is very clear on the definition of synthetic. It says "produced by synthesis; specifically, produced by chemical synthesis rather than of natural origin." It then goes on to define synthesis as "the formation of a complex compound by the combining of two or more simpler compounds, elements or radicals."

It further defines synthesize as "to produce by synthesis rather than by extraction, refinement, etc." This is very much is agreement with the old SAE definition, and it clearly excludes highly refined mineral oils such as Group IIIs.

A synthetic material is quite simply one produced by synthesis, and synthesis is a process, not a performance level. Producers of true synthetics have invested in the word synthetic over 50 years, and to see its meaning diluted for profit is disheartening.

Vinyl upholstery can be made to look and feel like leather, but it isn't leather, and the consumer has a right to know that - especially if they are paying leather prices.

Group IIIs are excellent products and can offer real value in many applications, but the word synthetic is already taken. I'm sure their marketing folks can find a new word to invest in without hijacking ours.

Tom Schaefer
Hatco Corporation
Fords, N.J.


Dear Lubes & Greases,

I enjoyed Tom Glenn's excellent column in your July issue. The column represents valuable and insightful reporting on his part. I was dismayed by Castrol's 'coup,' concerning their use of Group III mineral oil in products identified as being synthetic. This is completely unacceptable and should be countered by development of clear industry standards concerning the definition of synthetic lubricants, if such action is actually required. However, existing group designations for lubricant base stocks are quite clear as they presently stand. Failure of advertising groups to adhere to such industry standards is obviously irresponsible.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus failed to act in accordance with sound ethical principles. Standards organizations within the lubricant industry represent the only credible source of technical definitions. Industry-defined standards and definitions should be accepted by such groups as the national Advertising Division of CBBB.

Concerned industry professionals and consumers alike should voice their oppositions to misleading advertising whenever the need is apparent. Also, products based upon falsely identified composition should be strictly avoided.

Many thanks for the excellent work of the authors and publishers of Lube's n Greases

Bob LaSalle
West Winfield, N.Y.

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