The History of Synthetic Oil

The Development of Synthesized Motor Oils: A Historic Review

No one a century ago could have foreseen the rapid transformations that science and invention would bring to our world. From rocket ships to microwaves, silicon chips to Dolly the cloned ewe — it has been an astonishing period of history. I mean, a hundred years ago we didn’t even have gas stations. Or highways. Or flat tires.

One of the transforming developments of our century has been the discovery of the process of organic synthesis, the combining of the raw materials of production into a nearly limitless array of plastics, films, fabrics and fluids. By understanding the geometry of organic compounds, chemists could create customized molecular designs to achieve preconceived objectives. Scientists realized that they could actually improve the characteristics of items found in nature.

One bi-product of this process has been the development of synthetic motor oil. It is believed that the first synthesized hydrocarbons were created by Friedel & Crafts in 1877 using Aluminum TriChrloride as the catalyst. Yet it wasn’t until 1929 that the commercial development of synthesized hydrocarbons was undertaken by Standard Oil of Indiana. Not surprisingly there was a lack of demand for the new product and this first marketplace introduction of synthetic lubricants was commercially unsuccessful. (There is probably no relationship between this event and collapse of stock market later that year.)

Eight years later the first PAO, a synthetic product using olefin polymerization, was manufactured. 1937 was also year that the Zurich Aviation Congress became interested in ester based lubricant technology. From 1938 to 1944 thousands of esters were evaluated in Germany with excellent results. In our own country ester basestocks were also being developed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory and introduced into military aviation applications during the 1940’s.

During this period scientists were well funded, and the new processes of synthetic creation had some great success. But as is so often the case, the existence of a “better mousetrap” does not always result in its commercial survival.

It was the space age that helped create a greater appreciation for the benefits of synthetic lubricants. Jet engines raised the bar on what was required of a lubricant. The high speed, high heat and cold temperature performance requirements of modern jets created a demand for a new kind of lubricant.

Just after the war we saw the first use of diesters by the British in turboprop engines for high temperature performance. And from the late forties to the early seventies various synthetic fluids were developed to meet the demands of new and more efficient high performance engines and machines.

Because of the self-evident cold weather benefits of synthetic jet engine oil, it would not have been difficult to find a few maverick pilots experimenting with this oil in their cars. The military paid thirty-five dollars a quart for synthetic oil in those days and even the used jet engine oil seemed clean enough for some pilots in Alaska and elsewhere to mix with their motor oil to assist cold winter starts.

One such experimenter took a more systematic approach. In the mid-1960’s, Lt. Col. Albert J. Amatuzio, jet fighter squadron commander at a northern Minnesota airbase, likewise had become familiar with these “extra ordinary” lubricants that protected the engines of the jets he flew. He began a research project that eventually became his life work and second career. At first, Amatuzio’s efforts were aimed at improving the performance of petroleum oil.

Eventually, Amatuzio realized the need to begin with a synthetic basetock and build his ideal lubricant from the ground up. His search led him to Monsanto, Drew Chemical Corporation and Hatco. It was Drew Chemical Corporation in Boonton, New Jersey, where the first polyol esters had been developed and patented in conjunction with Mobil Chemical in 1958. Mobil Oil’s Jet Engine Oil II was based on the fluids produced at Drew Chemical. The truth is, automobiles put even more stress on a lubricant than jet engines because air aspirated car engines must deal with dirt and the messy by-products of combustion. The problem was how to bring the expanded temperature range performance, wear protection and service life of a synthetic into an automotive setting. Amatuzio believed he had found a way. According to Jack Arotta, a Duluth Minnesota businessman today, “I was the first guy to put it (a specially formulated 100% synthetic motor oil) in a brand new car, a 1966 Ford Station Wagon. Al was my squadron commander up at the air base, so I always use the joke that since Al was my squadron commander, how could I not put it in when he told me to?”

Actually, for more than a year Jack had been putting a variety of Al’s synthetic formulations in his previous cars, so he did not feel that he was putting his vehicle at serious risk. After several more years of fine tuning his formulation, AMZOIL (Amatuzio-oil) was created and became the first 100% synthetic diester based engine oil to pass the API sequence tests and receive API qualification in 1972.

The following year Mobil Oil began marketing the first PAO based engine oil overseas and in 1975 they began test marketing a synthetic PAO based synthetic in the U.S. called Mobil 1.

Over time a growing niche of consumers became aware of the performance benefits synthetic offered. As additional products were developed, from synthetic diesel oil to two cycle oils, synthetic transmission fluids and gear lubes, so grew the interest. With growing market opportunity, more companies made contributions in the development of basestock fluids and new technologies, including the Gulf Oil Company (since acquired by Chevron), Chevron Corporation, Amoco, Ethyl Corporation, Exxon, Henkel, Castrol, Uniroyal, Lubrizol, Neste Chemical, and Texaco (additive technology and synfluids since acquired by Ethyl).

By the mid-nineties nearly every oil company carried a high end synthetic motor oil in its product line, though only a few companies seem truly dedicated to promoting them. Nevertheless, synthetic lubricants are currently the fastest growing segment of the oil industry and they are definitely here for the long haul.