Ever since oil was discovered by the Chinese more than twenty-six hundred years ago, man has found uses for the slick substance. Early on, it was transported through bamboo pipelines and used for lubrication, weaponry, medicine, ink, lighting, and more. But it didn’t really come into prominence until Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania in the eighteen-hundreds and the famous Spindletop Field in Texas was discovered in 1901.
Along the way, an American doctor named John Ellis was intrigued by the prospect of medicinal uses for oil. Disappointed to find no real value in that direction, he abandoned medical practice and founded an oil refining company in 1866 with the aim of developing an all-petroleum, high viscosity lubricant for steam engines to replace the use of animal fats and other compounds.
As the world found uses for the lubricant properties of oil, the need arose for a system of standardization. In 1911, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) published their first of many standards for motor oil viscosity. They set out to design a system that could, on the one hand, reflect how suitable an oil was for use as an engine lubricant and, on the other, be easy for consumers to interpret. That initial specification designated five different grades of motor oil based on their performance at a given operating temperature (212 degrees F).
A few decades later, a major change in the industry came about when those original grade designations were supplemented with a set of winter grades (designated with a “W”) that were capable of better performance in the cold. These oils were specified by their viscosity (thickness) at 0 Degrees F.
The fifties may have introduced us to Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, but they also brought us the first multi-weight motor oils. Advances in engineering led to the development of viscosity enhancers, chemical additives that could modify the consistency or thickness (the viscosity) of oil as it heated up. That development opened the door for oil that could perform consistently over a wide range of temperatures. Vehicles in cold climates no longer needed different types of oil in summer and winter. Products bearing the grades “10W-30” and “10W-40” became popular.
Also on the heels of WWII, a new type of oil was born. Rather, it was created. (Actually, it was developed in 1929, but development accelerated a decade later). During the war, an oil shortage made it difficult for countries to keep enough in stock for their militaries. Germany, in particular, found itself in need of another solution. Up until that time, oil was derived and distilled from crude pumped from deep in the ground. For the first time, scientists were able to engineer oil artificially in a lab. Starting with a highly-refined crude oil as a base stock (or some other compound altogether), they could manipulate the molecules to create a product with superior qualities to those of “conventional” oil.
While this new “synthetic” technology helped in a pinch and was adopted by the aerospace industry, it was not widely available for use in cars until the seventies. AMSOIL brought a fully synthetic product to market in 1972 and was followed closely by Mobil Oil Company. By the nineties, most major oil companies had a synthetic product to offer. Unfortunately, synthetic oil developed a reputation for causing problems in older engines. Some manufacturers offered products containing harsh detergents that could eat away at oil seals and cause engines to leak. Those issues were solved in later years, but the public has been slow to adopt synthetic oil as a substitute over conventional oil.
Today, synthetic oil comes standard in many new vehicles. Advances in engine technology have led to engines that are smaller, lighter, and more powerful than those of the past. Newer engines also have tighter tolerances between their internal moving parts. These advances have made it necessary for motor oils to be thinner and more consistent in their molecular structure. Only synthetic oil can be made to the specifications of some engines. So, synthetic motor oil has become the go-to lubricant of many auto manufacturers, from Honda and Toyota to Mercedes, Porsche, and BMW. And today, lightweight grades such as 5W-20, 0W-20, and 0W-16 have become popular.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright November 2019
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