Natural Gas Motor Oil: Is It Better?
Shell turned heads within the motor oil nerd community (yes, they do exist) in 2014 after unveiling its natural gas to motor oil process. Shell explained that its gas-to-liquid (GTL) technology is a groundbreaking step forward in motor oil technology.
According to Shell, it took four decades to cultivate and create 3,500 patents. GTL technology is marketed in the United States under Pennzoil’s Platinum line of oils, which Shell claims offers superior wear protection, fuel economy, purity and service life “when tested against market representative products”. People sometimes ask us how natural gas-based motor oil is created and if it is any competition for AMSOIL products. We’ll explore those questions below.
How is motor oil made?
We’ll first need a basic understanding of how motor oil itself is made. It can be explained in depth in this “Synthetic vs Conventional Oil: The Definitive Guide” post. We’ve also included an explanation in this History of Synthetic Oil (and AMSOIL) post, both of which are good for long reads. For this article, we will break down the motor oil creation process below:
All motor oil is composed of two essential components: base oil and additives.
The base oil is the majority of the formulation and is responsible for greasing the engine, providing wear protection, heat management and other vital responsibilities. Formulators will add motor oil additives to help boost the performance of the oil. Oil additives help battle oxidation, neutralize acid, protect from rust and other elements, depending on the oil’s applications.
Base oils utilized to create conventional oils are purified from crude oil. Oil refiners will use heat, pressure and other stimuli to sort the crude oil molecules into different groups, using size as the method in which to sort. These groups are called fractions. Though the process works well for many products we use every day, there are natural limitations. Distillation cannot effectively get rid of every single impurity from conventional base oils, like sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, metals and wax that will harden in the cold. Therefore, conventional motor oil cannot deliver the same protection modern engines need to run smoothly.
Synthetic base oils, however, are created (synthesized), not distilled. Formulators will hydrocrack crude-oil molecules into their parts. Next, using the highest-grade pure molecules for engine lubrication, they will build bigger molecules from the ground up through natural synthesis. The result is a contaminant-free synthetic base oil—something conventional oils can’t claim they are. Synthetic oil therefore inherently provides better protection from wear, performance in extreme temperatures, purity and fuel economy.
How is natural gas motor oil made?
How exactly is synthetic motor oil made from natural gas different from regular synthetic oil? Let’s examine the gas-to-liquid process.
Gasification: The gas-to-liquid process begins with something called gasification. During gasification, pure oxygen is reacted with methane to create what is referred to as synthesis gas, or syngas. Although it is easily made with natural gas, you can also use biomass or crude oil. Syngas is fundamentally clean because refiners scrub nearly everything out of it other than its primary building components: hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
Synthesis: After gasification, syngas is put through a reactor, and using Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, is built into hydrocarbons of a higher molecular weight.
Processing: The Fischer-Tropsch method can produce many different products that vary widely in composition, from gas molecules to a consistency similar to candle wax. Through many processes, including hydrocracking, isodewaxing, and, down the line, distillation, these molecules will turn into a working base oil. No matter the quality, any base oil or motor oil made from GTL technology is, by its very definition, full synthetic since the base oils go through the same synthesis as others.
Regardless of whether you’re creating synthetic base oils from crude oil or natural gas, the same rule is in effect: refineries will use catalysts to break down particles and synthesis to cleanse and create new ones. A base oil is then created that will effectively perform better than conventional base oils.
Natural gas motor oil benefits
GTL-created oil is free of contaminants that conventional oils cannot escape from, so overall, it offers superior protection from wear, good performance in extreme heat and cold, and more long-lasting than conventional oils.
Some additional benefits of making oil using natural gas include:
- Utilizing a resource that is a known greenhouse gas
- Plentiful supply
- Lower cost when crude oil is more expensive
It’s worth mentioning that a lot of GTL catalysts and methods produce highly waxy base oils with unwanted characteristics, including compromised pour point and volatility.
Pour point is the lowest point the oil can reach and still stay fluid. Wax will harden in the cold, leading to thickening oil and decreased protection—resulting in wear.
Volatility is the tendency of the oil to evaporate at hot temperatures. An increase in oil volatility leads to the likelihood that it will cause damaging engine deposits and increase oil consumption (requiring more engine top-offs).
Pennzoil Platinum outperformed many other synthetic and conventional oils in oil-volatility tests, but it didn’t beat AMSOIL Signature Series Synthetic Motor Oil. This is proof that oil made from natural gas isn’t automatically superior to other oils. Every aspect of the oil’s formulation has to be thought through, including quality of additives and formulation balance.
Natural gas motor oil: a summary
So is motor oil made from natural gas more exceptional than other oils? Yes, it is better than conventional oils, but so are most other high-quality synthetic motor oils.
As we’ve discussed, the gas-to-liquid method as it is used to make synthetic base oils is a worthwhile technology that has a handful of great benefits, but it boils down to a product that we’ve had for decades: synthetic base oils.
Synthetic oil performs better than conventional oil—this is something that’s been known for years. If you use Pennzoil Platinum, you’ve taken a great step away from conventional oil and toward exceptional protection for your engine, but if you want the ultimate protection, consider an upgrade to AMSOIL Signature Series Synthetic Motor Oil.
AMSOIL Signature Series Synthetic Motor Oil is specifically formulated to blow the doors off leading synthetic oil industry standards and outperform other synthetic oils—including oils made from gas-to-liquid (GTL) technology.