Diving For Pearls


By Lisa Tocci
Publised in December 2016 Issue of Lubes'N'Greases

Pry open enough oysters, and you might find a random pearl. To succeed at it on a commercial scale, you need to amass the right insights, tools and talents for the hunt.

The same idea applies when seeking novel lubricant chemistries, feels Ralf Duessel, Ph.D., senior vice president and managing director of Evonik’s Oil Additives business, based in Darmstadt, Germany. Whole strings of additive pearls could be tucked into the recesses of the global chemicals—industry including in parent company Evonik Industries—and it’s his job to strategically deploy the resources and tools to exploit them.

One tool is nearing completion now in Darmstadt: an advanced research laboratory to uncover gems and polish them for the market. The new Friction and Motion Competence Centre, nicknamed FriMO, is expected to be fully operational in first-quarter 2017, Lubes’n’Greases heard during a mid­September visit to the construction site.

Unlike Darmstadt’s existing product performance and customer service labs, FriMo will focus on mid- and long-range developments. Oil Additives also expects it to be a platform for collaborating with other segments of Evonik Industries, a publicly traded specialty chemical company with 2015 revenues of 13.5 billion euros, 18.2 percent profitability and more than 33,500 employees.

“Although Evonik has 22 business lines, they are organized into three operating segments: Nutrition and Care, Performance Materials and Resource Efficiency, which includes Oil Additives,” explained Duessel, a chemical engineer who was recruited out of university by Evonik 20 years ago and named head of Oil Additives in early 2013. “Oil Additives is the largest business within Evonik that is selling into lubes. However, there are a lot of areas in Evonik that can be tapped for lubricant thinking, and that’s why we established the Friction and Motion Competence Centre and are building this dedicated laboratory.”

Other business lines in Evonik’s Resource Efficiency segment include coatings (which has defoamers, resins, binders and surfactants), cross-linkers, high performance polymers, and metal oxides such as silanes and silica. Each may hold concepts and produces that could be useful in lubricants, but interactions with Oil Additives were infrequent until now.

The missing link “was the resources that need to be dedicated to making such ideas come to reality,” said Stephan Fengler, Oil Additives’ vice president of innovation management. A Ph.D. chemical engineer, he took charge of innovation for oil additives, polymers, coatings and adhesives in 2012.

“Today our technology is focused on bulk fluid, but the issue increasingly is friction and wear,” he continued. “Where exactly does wear happen? It’s at the interface of the materials and the lubricant, and FriMo is bringing us to that interface. The next stage will be to look at the whole system of moving parts, materials, surfaces and lubrication,” rather than primarily focusing on viscometric effects.

Based on internal estimates and data from consultancy Kline and Co., Duessel pegs the value of the world’s lubricants market at 90 billion euros. Additive suppliers account for about 13 billion of this, including 2.1 billion euros of viscosity index Improvers and pour point depressants, the two leading areas for Evonik’s Oil Additives business.

“The lube market worldwide is growing maybe 1 percent a year, but we believe there is higher demand growth for additives,” Duessel said. “Each time a GF-specification or ACEA specification for engine oils increases, the demand for additives increases. The industry may sell less oil overall, but more additives are in there.”

Various consultants rank Evonik as the fifth or sixth largest company supplying lubricant additives, right after the top four additive package suppliers. Those four, who Kline reckons share about 75 percent of the global market, include Afton Chemical, Chevron Oronite, Infineum and Lubrizol.

Unlike them, Evonik plays in the area of specialized components, not formulated packages. In this its nearest rivals are probably Chemtura and BASF. Chemtura is being acquired by Lanxess and folded into its Rhein Chemie subsidiary to create an antioxidant powerhouse, but that seems unlikely to challenge Evonik’s footing in V.l. improvers and pour point depressants.

Senior Scientist Stefan Maier elaborated: “The key features we sell (and most of our products have at least one of these) are dispersancy, pour point which essentially means preventing wax crystals from growing and gelling in the oil—and V.I. effects. All come from our understanding of monomers and how to use them to build up useful polymer chains.” High viscosity base fluids are also part of the arsenal.

Other V.I. chemistries exist, mostly based on hydrocarbons like styrene­diene and ethylene-propylene copolymers, Maier said. “But it’s very important co be able to control the distribution of chain lengths and molecular weights, and that’s what enables us to create things like a polymer comb structure and others.”

Evonik is the successor to a long history of companies and brands, he reminded, and the company’s polymer chemistries have their roots in methacrylic acid (MMA, the monomer invented by Otto Rohm in the 1920s from which Plexiglas is made). Predecessors like Rohm and Haas in Germany and Rohm US spearheaded the use of poly alkylmethacrylates (PMAs) as V.I. improvers and pour point depressants in the 1940s, and followed up with dispersant PMAs in the 1960s.

Oil Additives’ sales now are split roughly evenly among the Americas, EMEA and Asia. It has five production sites (Darmstadt; Morrisburg, Canada; Houston; Lauterbourg, France; and Singapore), and plans to add a process unit in Weiterstadt, Germany, to make comb-type polymers. Major R&D facilities are in Darmstadt, Horsham, Pennsylvania, and Tsukuba, Japan, while a product development lab in Shanghai supports customers in China.

“Generally, you have to admit that lubricants is not a sexy market, if you just look at growth rates alone,” commented Ralf Duessel. “But our main competency is in the V.I. improver market, and that’s about a 2 billion euro market annually.

“The lube additives market overall is forecast to grow one to two percent a year,” which is twice the rate of the overall lubes market, he continued. “But we see the potential for higher growth, especially where energy savings is the driver and we can show a performance advantage, such as with Nuflux [base stocks] for wind power and general industrial gearboxes, and our Dynavis technology.” (The latter is a proprietary specification for higher performing hydraulic fluids; it revolves around the benefits of using high V.I. fluids.)

Duessel likens the business’s growth strategy to a triangle: One facet involves creating demand for lubricant customers’ products by working with OEMs on technical advances and approvals; another is broadening the scope of current products; and the third is investing in plants, technology and people. “Everything can fit into the triangle,” he declared, “but it takes time. The approach we’ve used with Dynavis can take six to eight years to bear fruit. We spent that time going to trade shows, conducting field trials and supplying sales support to show the performance gains. We don’t talk with OEMs and customers about chemistry, but about efficiency and performance.”

About 10 years ago, related Stephan Fengler, Evonik set out to create an innovative space for its various R&D groups to connect their polymer knowledge, while keeping product develop merit front-of-mind. That effort led to the creation of “competence centres,” which can bring in technologies from other sides of the company. The FriMo Competence Centre, for example, focuses on friction reduction and machinery endurance.

“Step one was to look at what technical competencies we have in our groups,” Fengler said. “Doing that, we identified six key technologies that cover 80 percent of our operating business segment.” These are polymers, “interfacial technologies” (i.e., emulsifiers and dispersants that attach and impart surface properties); coating and bonding adhesives (which involve surface film formation); biotechnology; catalytic effects; and inorganic particle design.

After tracing the parallels among the competencies, the next steps were to set priorities, fund and invest, and deliver resources that can result in new products. “Now we can use those networks to bring people together, to find solutions for our business lines,” said Fengler. “So at Oil Additives, we’ll be going beyond polymers alone.”

It may sound ivory-tower, but it’s grounded in pragmatism, Duessel indicated. “At the end of the day, products need to be marketed and supplied.”

FriMo Competence Centre head Guenter Schmitt, who has responsibility for its creative pipeline, finds the challenge energizing. “I love chemistry and love getting to transfer that knowledge into products,” he said with contagious enthusiasm. Schmitt joined Evonik in 1990 as a paper technology chemist, worked as commercial manager for road-marking additives, moved into coatings and adhesives, and then took up his current role at Oil Additives in January 2016.

Rather than look at polymers alone, he said, FriMo’s scientists will examine fluid systems and surface designs. “Energy losses through friction are enormous,” Schmitt said. “About 15 to 20 percent of the energy used each year goes just to overcome friction. So there’s great need for products that can reduce that energy loss.

“Fluid systems may mean new additives, not just polymers. Nanoparticles could give wonderful effects, so we’re asking if there is something that is really comparable to current fluids. Surface design may come up with new processes to create fluids, perhaps a balance between adhering and surface films. And nanoparticles are already in our sights, as we’re researching a family of nanoparticles made by our sister company in Hanau, Germany.”

Schmitt also plays ambassador to other Resource Efficiency business lines, to prod their interest. “Internally, we’re talking intensely with our colleagues in polymers, in silanes (which are mostly sold now into coatings), in coating additives and in inorganic particles. We’re going across business lines to find what may have potential as oil additives.

“The motivation for these businesses to participate is that we are visible to the market as Friction and Motion,” Schmitt continued. “So if we develop something together, they’ll get sales into a new market for them, I feel there’s a lot of motivation to move to this kind of system thinking. It’s not only about the technology they have, but about how to bring it to the right commercial application. We need to find that focus on where a business opportunity exists, and then go after it together.”

While FriMo is generating a buzz right now, Evonik has additional growth initiatives underway. One is the Evonik Venture Capital Group, which is investing more than 100 million euros in new ventures such as the bio-derived base stock manufacturers Bio-Synthetic Technologies and Algal Scientific.

“Nano is another strong area, although right now it’s another tool, not a full replacement for lubrication,” Duessel said. “We also see the base oil demand shifting from API Group I to II and Ill, which isn’t always beneficial. Group II and III don’t have the same synergies for making greases and metalworking fluids, for example, so there may be an opportunity to solve that issue.”

Hypothetically, Evonik could acquire other additive companies, as well. “It would need to be a company that is strong in specialized technology for oil additives, and not a producer of commodity products like detergent-inhibitors,” Duessel mused.

Meanwhile, FriMo is priming the pump with ideas and concepts. For example, a patent has already been filed on a new and very stable way to disperse metal oxides in oil. Will successes like that have Evonik’s other businesses knocking on Oil Additives door?

“First, we have to convince the other business units there will be future business and sales,” Duessel said. “They are going to be driven by potential. We cannot put a return yet on FriMo, but we can on specific projects—and if we are the route to market, they’ll be happy to join in.”

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