The Development of Synthesized Motor Oils:
by Ed Newman
A Historical Review
Marketing & Advertising Manager, AMSOIL INC.
AS THE YEAR 2000 APPROACHES,
it is both a time of looking forward, and of looking back. No
one a century ago could have foreseen the rapid transformations
that science and invention would bring to our world. From rocket
ships to microwaves, silicon chips to Dolly the cloned ewe --
it has been an astonishing period of history. I mean, a hundred
years ago we didn't even have gas stations. Or highways. Or flat
One of the transforming developments of our century has been the
discovery of the process of organic synthesis, the combining of
the raw materials of production into a nearly limitless array
of plastics, films, fabrics and fluids. By understanding the geometry
of organic compounds, chemists could create customized molecular
designs to achieve preconceived objectives. Scientists realized
that they could actually improve the characteristics of items
found in nature.
One by-product of this process has been the development of synthetic
motor oil. It is believed that the first synthesized hydrocarbons
were created by Friedel & Crafts in 1877 using Aluminum TriChrloride
as the catalyst. Yet it wasn't until 1929 that the commercial
development of synthesized hydrocarbons was undertaken by Standard
Oil of Indiana. Not surprisingly there was a lack of demand for
the new product and this first marketplace introduction of synthetic
lubricants was commercially unsuccessful. (There is probably no
relationship between this event and collapse of stock market later
Eight years later the first PAO, a synthetic product using olefin
polymerization, was manufactured. 1937 was also year that the
Zurich Aviation Congress became interested in ester based lubricant
technology. From 1938 to 1944 thousands of esters were evaluated
in Germany with excellent results. In our own country ester basestocks
were also being developed by the United States Naval Research
Laboratory and introduced into military aviation applications
during the 1940's.
During this period scientists were well funded, and the new processes
of synthetic creation had some great success. But as is so often
the case, the existence of a "better mousetrap" does
not always result in its commercial survival.
It was the space age that helped create a greater appreciation
for the benefits of synthetic lubricants. Jet engines raised the
bar on what was required of a lubricant. The high speed, high
heat and cold temperature performance requirements of modern jets
created a demand for a new kind of lubricant.
Just after the war we saw the first use of diesters by the British
in turboprop engines for high temperature performance. And from
the late forties to the early seventies various synthetic fluids
were developed to meet the demands of new and more efficient high
performance engines and machines.
Because of the self-evident cold weather benefits of synthetic
jet engine oil, it would not have been difficult to find a few
maverick pilots experimenting with this oil in their cars. The
military paid thirty-five dollars a quart for synthetic oil in
those days and even the used jet engine oil seemed clean enough
for some pilots in Alaska and elsewhere to mix with their motor
oil to assist cold winter starts.
One such experimenter took a more systematic approach. In the
mid-1960's, Lt. Col. Albert J. Amatuzio, jet fighter squadron
commander at a northern Minnesota airbase, likewise had become
familiar with these "extra ordinary" lubricants that
protected the engines of the jets he flew. He began a research
project that eventually became his life work and second career.
At first, Amatuzio's efforts were aimed at improving the performance
of petroleum oil.
Eventually, Amatuzio realized the need to begin with a synthetic
basetock and build his ideal lubricant from the ground up. His
search led him to Monsanto, Drew Chemical Corporation and Hatco.
It was Drew Chemical Corporation in Boonton, New Jersey, where
the first polyol esters had been developed and patented in conjunction
with Mobil Chemical in 1958. Mobil Oil's Jet Engine Oil II was
based on the fluids produced at Drew Chemical.
The truth is, automobiles put even more stress on a lubricant
than jet engines because air aspirated car engines must deal with
dirt and the messy by-products of combustion. The problem was
how to bring the expanded temperature range performance, wear
protection and service life of a synthetic into an automotive
setting. Amatuzio believed he had found a way.
According to Jack Arotta, a Duluth Minnesota businessman today,
"I was the first guy to put it (a specially formulated 100%
synthetic motor oil) in a brand new car, a 1966 Ford Station Wagon.
Al was my squadron commander up at the air base, so I always use
the joke that since Al was my squadron commander, how could I
not put it in when he told me to."
Actually, for more than a year Jack had been putting a variety
of Al's synthetic formulations in his previous cars, so he did
not feel that he was putting his vehicle at serious risk. After
several more years of fine tuning his formulation, AMZOIL (Amatuzio-oil)
was created and became the first 100% synthetic diester based
engine oil to pass the API sequence tests and receive API qualification
The following year Mobil Oil began marketing the first PAO based
engine oil overseas and in 1975 they began test marketing a synthetic
PAO based synthetic in the U.S. called Mobil 1.
Over time a growing niche of consumers became aware of the performance
benefits synthetic offered. As additional products were developed,
from synthetic diesel oil to two cycle oils, synthetic transmission
fluids and gear lubes, so grew the interest. With growing market
opportunity, more companies made contributions in the development
of basestock fluids and new technologies, including the Gulf Oil
Company (since acquired by Chevron), Chevron Corporation, Amoco,
Ethyl Corporation, Exxon, Henkel, Castrol, Uniroyal, Lubrizol,
Neste Chemical, and Texaco (additive technology and synfluids
since acquired by Ethyl).
By the mid-nineties nearly every oil company carried a high end
synthetic motor oil in its product line, though only a few companies
seem truly dedicated to promoting them. Nevertheless, synthetic
lubricants are currently the fastest growing segment of the oil
industry and they are definitely here for the long haul.
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