The future of combustion engines and motor oils blog
Base oils

The future of combustion engines and motor oils

Internal combustion engines will be essential for decades, and they will need low-viscosity and low-volatility lubricants.

There are a lot of stories in the news today predicting that electric vehicles will entirely  displace internal combustion engines (ICE) within the next few decades. Some advocates for electric vehicles and even political bodies, such as the European Commission, have proposed mandates that would effectively eliminate ICE vehicles by 2035, if not earlier.

While it is possible that governmental action could mandate the ban of gasoline and diesel engines in certain locations, I don’t see a broad banning of ICE happening very quickly.  On the contrary, projections by trusted and responsible organizations like Kline  and The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast that more than 80% of vehicles will still have internal combustion engines throughout the 2040s.

Much of the disagreement stems from somewhat confusing statements about the present sales growth of electric vehicles as well as a flexible definition of electric vehicles.

When advocates of electrification say that the number of electric vehicles is growing rapidly, they tend to quote statistics about electric vehicle sales. While it’s true the growth of electric vehicles is accelerating, it's starting from a very small base.

Perhaps most importantly when contemplating the demise of the ICE, the definition of “electric vehicles” usually includes hybrids and plug-in hybrids as well as battery electric vehicles.  Advocates often fail to point out that all hybrids have an internal combustion engine. By talking about “electric vehicles” they  can make the adoption rate of zero emissions battery electric vehicles without an ICE sound more rapid than it is.

Battery-electric cars are still in a developing phase. From an infrastructure standpoint, full electrification requires a sophisticated power grid. The majority of countries have not yet built the infrastructure for a reliable, distributed charging system –  much less a sustainable grid.

The few countries where battery electric vehicles are outperforming expectations are China and Norway. Norwegian government policy uses the money from it’s 78% tax on gas and oil exports to subsidise the electrification of road traffic. China does not have any oil fields but they have lots of coal to make electricity.  Unlike many western nations, China has very limited investment in plants and machinery for building ICE, .  For China, electrification of transportation is an obvious strategic choice.

Internal combustion engines stay dominant through 2050

Let’s look at the figures more closely. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2050, new battery-electric vehicles will represent only 1.5 million of the 15 million new cars projected to be sold in the United States. This means that auto buyers are projected to purchase 13.5 million new vehicles with internal combustion engines.  That’s 90% of US new car sales in 2050.

The situation is similar around the world. Kline predicts that in 2040, “electric vehicles” will represent 35% of the passenger car fleet in six leading markets: China, Japan, the USA, France, Germany, and the U.K. However, battery electric vehicles are projected to be less than 20% of the passenger car vehicle population in those advanced countries. Further, the majority of those battery electric vehicles will be in China.

Of a projected 1.2 billion passenger cars on the roads in 2040, approximately one billion will still have an internal combustion engine. And when it comes to heavy-duty construction and pulling freight, we are definitely going to need diesel trucks

I agree that we will eventually convert most of our passenger car fleet to battery, hydrogen, or electric vehicles. However, it will happen well after 2040, or even 2050.

Fundamentally, it’s undeniable that we can’t continue taking carbon from deep underground and pumping it into the biosphere and expect nothing to happen. I get the science. However, the speed at which some advocates are pushing for change seems unrealistic.

Low-viscosity oils are needed

The unsteady progress towards electrification leaves auto manufacturers in a terrible bind. They have to determine what consumers are willing to buy and what they are allowed to sell.  These are not always complementary choices. They must invest in electric vehicles, including hybrids, but also develop cleaner internal combustion engines for markets that don’t adopt battery electric vehicles quickly. Those engines will not use oils based on today’s specifications.  Engine oils will change as the engines, control schemes and driving demands change.

A traditional internal combustion engine runs all the time when the vehicle is in motion. Acceleration puts much stress on the engine components, and the lubricant is there to protect them. Thick oils offer protection - but also create drag.

In a hybrid vehicle, the engine works only part of the time.  Under acceleration the battery and electric motor absorb part of the surge and the load on the combustion engine is reduced. In some vehicles, the engine is used only for charging the battery. The engine’s temperature is lower, and its parts require less lubricant film thickness. This means we can use low-viscosity oils to improve fuel consumption.

Low-viscosity engine oils measurably reduce real-world engine friction loss. Consequently, less fuel is needed to move the same mass. This means that fewer greenhouse gases are emitted per distance traveled. Low-volatility oils also enable longer drain intervals, further reducing oil usage.

Despite these positive environmental outcomes from lubricating oils, automakers, environmentalists and consumers still want more - truly green lubricants.

Re-refining, offsets or renewable feedstocks

In addition to better performance, oil marketers and base oil manufacturers must produce more sustainably sourced lubricants. How can we do it? Today we basically have three options: re-refining, carbon credit offsets, and renewable/sustainable feedstocks.

Re-refining takes a waste stream and reinserts it into the blender’s base stock pool. Re-refining can face some quality issues regarding used oil collection, but it’s improved significantly. Used motor oil is largely Group II with some Group  III reflecting what’s recommended in most passenger car lubricants for major auto manufacturers. Base stocks with re-refined components are suitable for most 10W, 5W and some 0W specifications. Some major oil marketers are giving re-refined oils serious consideration.

Carbon credit offsets are of questionable effectiveness in the long run but can provide an environmentally sensitive image for marketers. Offsets don’t actually decrease the greenhouse gases that conventional oil manufacturing produces.

To find lasting solutions, we must look at renewable and sustainable base stocks. The basic idea for renewable hydrocarbons is simple. We take triglycerides from plants or animal oils and convert them into hydrocarbons. These technologies have been in commercial use for more than a decade. A good example is Neste MY Renewable Diesel, which is made from 100% renewable raw materials and can result in up to 75-90% less greenhouse gas emissions over the fuel’s life cycle when compared with fossil diesel.

Our solution: NEXBASE™ 4+

In partnership with Novvi LLC, Neste has produced a nearly zero carbon footprint  Group III+ base oil called NEXBASE™ 4+. The molecules Novvi provides for NEXBASE 4+ are based upon specific plant produced oils and have high-performance cold temperature and volatility characteristics - a key for modern internal combustion engine lubricants.  NEXBASE 4+ is engineered for the most demanding global OEM engine oil specifications.  NEXBASE 4+ opens the door for low carbon footprint, high performance, low volatility oils without the use of PAO.

While battery electric vehicles may become a majority of the car park – well after 2050 –  NEXBASE 4+ is here today and it is enabling the engine oils that will move us forward, renewably, in the coming decades.

Read more on NEXBASE™ 4+ here.


Chris Castanien, Technical Service Manager, Neste

Sign up for our newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and get inspiration and insight for your Journey to Zero.