The use of oil additives has long been a controversial subject that haunts the oil and automobile industries, their respective stakeholders and – perhaps most significantly – the consumer. Thanks to a fair amount of negativity toward these additives, they have often been labelled as doing more harm than good.
Numerous studies have been published by oil companies, car makers and oil standards organisations disputing the value of additives and exposing the so-called risks of additive usage in engine oils. There is so much speculation pervading the market, particularly in the Internet forums, that an automobile owner might become totally confused about whether it is necessary to use additives in their vehicle. This article is an attempt to regain some accurate context and clarity on this taboo subject.
Oil is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Two of the most important attributes of this industry are stiff competition and hectic infighting for protection of vested interests. The engine oils these companies sell conform to various international specifications like SAE and API. The main motive with which these companies operate is obviously profit. However, it’s not a profit at any cost situation. The quality of the product is also very important because that’s what can give a company an edge in capturing and retaining a sizeable market share. So most oil companies invariably try to market good quality engine oil that optimizes performance and ensures longer engine life.
But – that all said – how eager are these oil companies to make a really good oil? Do they make the best quality oil? The answer is certainly a big ‘NO.’ Let’s see why this is so. First, the expression “best quality” is completely relative. One oil might be good for a particular type of engine and not so good for another. Moreover, there is no such end-goal specification, only set regulatory standards.
Research is unfolding new possibilities almost every day. In this highly dynamic situation, it is quite possible for an oil brand that is an excellent quality today to get replaced by a more efficient substitute tomorrow. Therefore, there is nothing sacrosanct about best quality oil. Second and most important, oil companies would never make the “ultimate” oil, even if it was theoretically possible. Why? Because that runs counter to their business interests. Optimum quality oil can mean more shelf-life and less replacement, and this will obviously make their markets take a beating. It is, therefore, a natural conclusion that oil companies do not make – rather do not endeavour to make – the best quality oil. It’s in their business interest to promote marketing and strategic associations to earn more money, rather than devote resources for quality optimization.
There are interesting examples of this. A very well-known, worldwide oil manufacturer (renowned for their quality, fully synthetic oils) spends more on marketing than they do on research and development and production put together! Another well-known petroleum supplier now owns the rights to Slick 50. Despite the many complaints and legal cases that have surfaced and the brand having been notorious in tarnishing the oil additives market in general, this supplier purchased the rights to Slick 50 and continues to sell this product today. Why? Because it still makes money! For clarification, we do not endorse Slick 50 or recommend any PTFE-based additives for engine use.
The conglomerate of major oil manufacturers, standards institutions and regulatory bodies have too much invested in the status quo (group III base stocks, decades old ZDDP additives etc.). And when you combine this with a market that is not yet demanding more modern (nano) additive technologies, many oil manufacturers have little interest in providing higher quality lubricants. The latest base stocks (group IV PAO’s, group V Esters, OSPs, higher performing additive pack ingredients, etc.) are currently reserved and used by the smaller boutique oil companies rather than the mainstream brands.
Stipulated specifications (ACEA, SAE, API, etc.) lead to many oils that are inferior by design. For example, improving the base stock or additive technology can result in oil that although superior, is now “out of spec.” This includes full-, mid- and low-SAPS oils. Now consider the current ash measurement test. Not all sulphated ash is harmful to the DPF. Certain types of ash are actually beneficial and help diesel particulate filters catalyse carbons. The current ash test can only determine ash content and not differentiate between good or bad. This is a significant handicap to the engine oil quality for the majority of diesel engines that require mid- to low-SAPS lubricants.
It’s not at all hard to accept that these oil companies make oil that surpasses the basic quality specifications set by various accredited agencies. But it is not in their interests financially to far exceed these specifications even if given the freedom to do so. This means you are likely buying good oil that you can rely on for good performance and protection, but not necessarily the best oil for peak performance, protection or deposit control. Deposit build-up is now a huge issue facing manufacturers and consumers, particularly on direct injection engines. Many oils are simply not good enough and progress is hindered by having to abide by outdated specifications.
This naturally keeps one issue strongly in focus – oil quality can be improved for optimizing performance, delivering peak output and reducing deposit formation in the engine, intake, EGR and so on.
Engine oil has two main components – base stock and an additive package. The bulk of the oil – nearly 70 to 95 percent – is made up of base fluid(s) with the rest being the additives. The additive chemicals add value to the positive qualities and minimize impacts of the negative qualities of the base stock. Base stocks are of two main types, petroleum and synthetic. Crude oil in its purified form is the petroleum base stock. Petroleum has been in use since the earliest development and application of lubricants to the moving parts of an engine. Synthetic base stocks, on the other hand, are made in the laboratory. Specific chemicals that correspond to different functions are used to meet performance requirements. Synthetic base stocks are thus very much use-specific. Although they came to be known in the 1900s, they started getting prominence in automobile industry in the 1970s. Further information on the composition of oil can be found in our article, “What’s in Engine Oils?”
So, if additives are essentially in oil from the outset, then why is there so much controversy in fortifying existing oil with additional additives? For one, oil companies are likely considering how profits would be affected by selling longer-lasting oils and realizing it’s not a good business decision. Second, some make the argument that additional additives would upset the carefully selected blend of existing additives.
The reality is that selecting the appropriate constituents for the additives and their blending is a very expensive affair. If the oil companies were to invest substantially to create better oils, the end product would be costlier. Again, we return to the fact that oils only need to comply with the regulatory performance criteria in a given country. There is no general need for an oil company to spend money over-engineering an additive pack. Instead, this effort is saved for their more exclusive customers, like high-profile motor racing teams.
Another blockage is created by the car manufacturers. They refuse to honour the warranty obligations if oils with additives are used in the engines manufactured by them. It’s profit that’s uppermost in everybody’s mind. When a car manufacturer makes an engine they expect it to have a certain lifespan, on average. If they run longer than expected thanks to excellent engine oils charged with appropriate additives, their business is certainly compromised. So naturally, they would discard the idea of using such products that give engines a longer life than is needed.
Furthermore, there are unscrupulous individuals in the marketplace that insist on selling additives that claim ultimate protection or unrealistic gains in miles per gallon. This is unfortunate as it has somehow resulted in the unreasonable deduction by some misinformed people – usually self-claimed “experts” that frequent the Internet forums – that if additives were any good then manufacturers would include them in their own oil. Well, the answer is they do, but usually in small (lower cost) quantities that leave much room for improvement.
From all this heat, one thing emerges firmly – additives do have a positive role in enhancing engine oil quality. And only intensive research by credible companies with limited vested interests can improve engine oil quality and find more cost effective ways to improve engine performance and increase engine life.
Our advice is to do your research before considering putting an additive in with your engine oil. Check the ethical standing of the manufacturer and search the Internet for product reviews. We also welcome you to contact us directly if you require a recommendation for your particular vehicle or application. In some cases and depending on your requirements, your chosen oil may not need fortifying.