Is Motor Oil a Renewable Resource?

National Geographic News asked whether Motor oil could be a viable renewable source in their article Is motor oil a  renewable source – re finers say yes!

Currently tens of millions of barrels of lubricant pass through vehicle engines around the world each year, U.S. drivers alone produce about 1.3 billion gallons of dirty used motor oil annually. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 200 million gallons (757,082 liters) is dumped illegally each year. Some is “recycled,” but with dubious environmental benefit it typically ends up burned as a rather dirty industrial fuel source

However the National Geographic article tells us that there is another option which is to use  motor oil as a renewable resource. It is possible to re-refine used motor oil, restoring it to “good as new” quality. Then it can be resold over and over again at about the same price per quart as conventional motor oil.

In Europe, about 50 percent of motor oil is re-refined, thanks to regulations dating to 1975 that were revised in 2008, say analysts at Kline & Company, a market research firm based in Parsippany, New Jersey.  In North America, only about 10 to 15 percent of motor oil is re-refined. But that story is slowly changing as U.S. companies have begun to see a new market in “green” lubricant.

Kevin Ferrick of API says re-refined oil is gaining some traction in the marketplace. “We don’t track sales of re-refined oil but I will say that there are definitely more and more brands coming online that are claiming some percentage of re-refined oil,” he said. “It’s interesting that some of these have been around for quite a few years now and some marketers chose not to make that claim of re-refined content.”

Because U.S. regulations did not require marketers to label virgin-equivalent products as re-refined, marketers didn’t broadcast they were selling recycled product, fearing consumer reluctance to use “old” oil. But now, companies are recognizing a marketing advantage. “I’d say that because of increased environmental consciousness there seems to have been a change in attitude towards it,” Ferrick said.

Re-refined motor oil even has a presence on the NASCAR circuit through partnership with Safety-Kleen, the largest motor oil re-refiner in the United States. Safety-Kleen not only services race teams, but it collects motor oil for re-refining at NASCAR racetracks and team shops—some 185,000 gallons (700,300 liters) in 2010 alone.

Apparently it takes only about one-third of the amount of energy to recover re-refined base stock as it does to produce the same amount of base stock from crude oil, Using less energy means producing fewer carbon emissions. And the same oil can be re-refined over and over again said John Wesley CEO of Wichita, Kansas-based Universal Lubricants, producer of ECO ULTRA re-refined oils.

Kevin Ferrick of API said “If you’re concerned about the environment then by all means use re-refined oils,These oils are just fine for vehicles, as long as they are certified, and reusing something over and over again is always a good thing to do rather than wasting a valuable source”

Motor oil re-refining’s savings do add up over time, and the world’s total annual output of used motor oil is anything but trivial. That’s why, for many, a “closed-loop” system that puts the same oil back to work over and over again is a strong option.

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