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Engines need motor oils to minimize friction caused by the engine parts as they move against each other. This friction not only wears down the parts but also creates additional heat in the engine, and reduces its power. While conventional oil helps clean and lubricate the engine to reduce friction, synthetic oil offers loads of benefits to your engine like better performance in extreme temperatures, avoiding oil sludge issues and resisting oxidation and thermal breakdown.
Synthetic oil is specially blended to prevent the buildup of sludge in the worst engine conditions. It is the chemicals that are added to synthetic oil that collects all the impure oils, fuels, acid, metals and dirt deposits on the engine to protect the engine by preventing sludge. There are some synthetic oils that are manufactured using only other synthetic molecules which may or may not have been the feedstocks for manufacturing crude oil.
Differences between conventional and synthetic motor oils
The conventional motor oil that most people use is derived from crude oil that’s abstracted from the earth through oil wells. This crude oil goes through a complex distillation process to get refined to many different liquids with independent characteristics. There are light fuels like kerosene and diesel fuel and heavier liquids used as lubricants like motor oil and grease. All of these liquids still contain molecular compounds which in turn reduce its performance.
Besides, these hydrocarbon molecules are non-uniform in appearance. Synthetic oil is much different where it doesn’t contain any contaminants and its hydrocarbon molecules are very uniform in size. This is how come these synthetic oils have better mechanical properties at high and low temperatures and a popular and better option for vehicles and machines.
How synthetic oil is made
Unlike crude oil which is made through distillation, synthetic oil is made through a chemical process called the Fischer-Tropsch process. It was started by Germany in the WWII when the country had very limited access to crude oil and had to look for an alternative option for oil.
It’s generally just that synthetic oil ends up reduced to its basic molecules once motor oil is distilled and purified. And it’s during this process that lots of impurities are extracted from conventional oils so that individual molecules get customized to work with both today’s sophisticated vehicles and machinery. This is also how and why synthetic oils end up performing better in high and low temperatures. They are also formulated by adding higher performing additives.
Synthetic oil is made in the lab, which is why different manufacturers and brands use different approaches to produce their respective oil. While no manufacturer will divulge the secrets or methods they use to make synthetic oil, here’s some basic information about the oil manufacture process.
The process starts using ordinary petroleum as the main feedstock with additional raw materials like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane. These raw materials are injected and blended with artificial chemical compounds that are absent in natural crude oil to create uniformly sized and weighed oil molecules.
These highly modified molecules are equal in term of size and shape and help the oil work better as lubricants. Besides, additional atoms are also added to it to make the molecules function better. For example, adding zinc- an anti-wear agent to the oil, along with other chemicals help neutralize acids that are created during the combustion of gasoline or diesel fuel.
Different procedures for manufacturing synthetic oils
There are two types of synthetic oils called Group IV and Group III oils. The Group IV oils are synthesized differently using simpler chemical compounds. This is how and why engineers can ‘customize’ their oils to exact specifications.
The oils from this group tend to flow rather freely at very low temperatures and don’t have a tendency of breaking down at high temperatures. These oils have the added benefit of being able to be classified into one or two grades lighter oils than mineral oils. This means these oils consume less energy because of the friction in the engine. These oils are generally considered to be more superior products.
In case of Group III lubricants, they are made using reprocessed petroleum products that are left over after manufacturing gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel and other products from crude oil. However, unfortunately, most of the countries outside of US don’t permit marketing Group III-based lubricants as synthetic oils.
As there are so many processes involved in making synthetic oils, there remains some difference in performance of different synthetics. For example, all synthetic oils made using natural gas through a gas-to-liquids process are more stable at high temperatures and are low in volatility. This is an important feature for both low viscosity and high-performance motor oils.
Limits of use
Synthetic oil, however, is not recommended for use in all vehicle makes and models. Older model vehicles especially benefit and work better on conventional oils because their engines are better designed to accommodate them. This is why it’s always better to check your vehicle’s owner manual to find out which oils are best and safest to use in your vehicle for better engine performance.