Lubricants are not generally regarded as being corrosive, and in order to appreciate how corrosion can occur in lubricant systems it is necessary to understand something of the nature of lubricants. Once, lubricants were almost exclusively animal or vegetable oils or fats, but modern requirements in the way of volume and special properties have made petroleum the main source of supply. In volume, lubricants now represent about 2% of all petroleum products; in value, considerably more.

There are many hundreds of different varieties of lubricants, many of them tailored to meet particular requirements. Lubricating greases are solid or semi-solid lubricants made by thickening lubricating oils with soaps, clays, silica gel or other thickening agents. Synthetic lubricants, which will operate over a very wide range of temperature, have been developed mainly for aviation gas-turbine engines.

These are generally carboxylic esters and are very expensive products. The main function of most lubricants is to reduce friction and wear between moving surfaces and to abstract heat. They also have to remove debris from the contact area, e.g. combustion products in an engine cylinder, swarf in metal-cutting operations.

Mineral lubricants may be distillates or residues derived from the vacuum distillation of a primary distillate with a boiling point range above that of gas oi1’*2*T3.h ey are mixtures of hydrocarbons containing more than about 20 carbon atoms per molecule, and range from thin, easily flowing ‘spindle’ oils to thick ‘cylinder’oils.

For hydrocarbons having the same number of carbon atoms per molecule, the higher the proportion of carbon to hydrogen, the more viscous the oil and the lower the viscosity index.

Distillate lubricating oils can be conveniently divided into three groups -low viscosity index oils (LVI oils), medium viscosity index oils (MVI oils) and high viscosity index oils (HVI oils). LVI oils are made from naphthenic distillates, with low wax contents so that costly dewaxing is not required.

MVI oils are produced from both naphthenic and paraffinic distillates; the paraffinic distillates have to be dewaxed. HVI oils are prepared by the solvent extraction and dewaxing of paraffnic distillates. Solvent extraction is a physical process which removes the undesirable constituents, thereby improving viscosity index and the oxidation and colour stability.

White oils are obtained by the more drastic refining of low viscosity lubricating oil distillates to remove unsaturated compounds and constituents that impart colour, odour and taste. They are usually solvent extracted and then repeatedly treated with strong sulphuric acid or oleum and alkali, and finally ‘clay’-treated to remove surface-active compounds.

Acid and clay treating is expensive and is being superseded by hydrofinishing, a catalytic hydrogenation
treatment. The residues from the vacuum distillation can also be refined to provide very viscous lubricants. The residues from paraffinic base oils are generally solvent extracted and dewaxed. The main use of these products (bright stocks) is as blending components for heavy lubricants.

Thus residues from naphthenic base oils, which are also used as blending components for heavy lubricants, are normally not extracted. The performance characteristics of a lubricating oil depend on its origin and on the refining processes employed, and in order to ensure consistent properties these are varied as little as possible. Some aero-engine builders insist on a complete re-evaluation of a lubricant, costing many thousands of pounds, whenever there is a change of source (crude) or refining process.

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