Plant Engineering Magazine’s Exclusive Guide To Synthetic Lubricants

Key concepts These lubricants reduce wear and provide long life. Synthetics can be formulated with a combination of features to satisfy specific application requirements.

By Ron Holzhauer, Managing Editor, and Cheryl Firestone, Senior Editor, Plant Engineering magazine July 1, 2000


These lubricants reduce wear and provide long life.

Synthetics can be formulated with a combination of features to satisfy specific application requirements.

The chart lists the product offerings from 73 companies.

Synthetics are the logical lubricant choice in a number of applications, including:

  • Equipment failure or excessive downtime is attributed to ineffective lubrication products or practices

    • Performance demands are beyond the capabilities of mineral-based petroleum products

      • High or low temperatures (-75-500 F) are encountered.

        • Manmade synthetics reduce wear by providing a better lubricant film in the load zone or nonconforming surface of bearings, gearboxes, compressors, rotary shaft seals, vacuum and diaphragm pumps, valves, and hydraulic systems. Reduced maintenance, parts replacement, and energy costs often result. Synthetic lubricants also provide long life because of their enhanced thermal and oxidative stability, which reduce the formation of sludge, corrosion, and deposits.

          The major drawback to synthetic lubricants is initial cost, which is typically about three times higher than mineral-based products. However, the initial price premium is usually recovered over the life of the product, which is about three times longer than conventional lubricants. Because of the initial expense, using synthetics in systems experiencing leakage or contamination is not a practical choice.

          The chart presented on the following pages serves as a guide to selecting and applying synthetic gear, bearing, hydraulic, and compressor oils; and three high/ extreme pressure greases. The chart, which is updated every 3 yr, is based on information supplied by the 73 companies who responded to a written request from Plant Engineering magazine.

          Products presented in the listings are categorized by viscosity. However, there are several other important variables that should be considered when selecting and applying synthetic lubricants. These factors include pour and flash points, demulsibility, lubricity, rust and corrosion protection, thermal and oxidation stability, antiwear properties, compatibility with seals and paints, and compliance with testing and standard requirements.

          Products presented in each category are not necessarily interchangeable or compatible. These two features depend on a variety of interrelated factors, and each application requires an individual analysis.


          A properly selected synthetic product provides the same basic lubrication functions as mineral oils. However, synthetic lubricants can be formulated with a combination of features to satisfy specific application requirements that petroleum products cannot usually match.

          Performance characteristics of synthetic lubricants derive from the physical and chemical properties of the base fluid and effects of additives introduced into the final product. Physical and chemical qualities include viscosity-temperature behavior, low-temperature fluidity, volatility, compatibility with paints and elastomers, ability to dissolve chemical additives, compatibility with petroleum, and hydrolytic stability. Additives are introduced to influence, to a greater or lesser degree, oxidation stability, load-bearing ability, and corrosion protection.

          The table below shows the relative performance characteristics of seven types of synthetic lubricants and a paraffinic mineral oil.


          There are several major classes of synthetic lubricants.

        • Synthesized hydrocarbons, such as polyalphaolefins and dialkylated benzenes, are the most common type. These products provide performance characteristics closest to mineral oils, and are compatible with them. They serve as engine and turbine oils, hydraulic fluids, gear and bearing circulating oils, and compressor lubricants.

          • Organic esters, such as dibasic acid and polyol esters, easily accept additives, which enhance their applicability for finished product formulations, such as crankcase oils and compressor lubricants.

            • Phosphate esters are well suited for fire resistance applications.

              • Polyglycols are applied for lubricating gears and bearings, and compressors handling hydrocarbon gases.

                • Silicones are chemically inert, nontoxic, fire resistant, and water repellent. They have low pour points and volatility, good low-temperature fluidity, and good oxidation and thermal stability at very high temperatures.

                  • It is important to remember that synthetics are as different from each other, as they are from petroleum lubricants. Their performance and applicability to any individual situation depend on the quality of the synthetic base stock and additive package.

                    Consulting the manufacturer early in the initial selection process is the best approach to ensuring the right product is selected for the application.

                    -Ron Holzhauer, Managing Editor, 630-320-7139,;

                    Cheryl Firestone, Senior Editor, 630-320-7136,

                    Performance characteristics of several lubricants

                    PropertiesMineral oil (paraffinic)PolyalphaolefinDialkylated benzenePolyol esterDibasic acid esterPolyglycolPhosphate esterSilicone fluid
                    Viscosity-temperature F G F G G VG P E
                    Low temperature P G G G G G F G
                    High-temperature oxidation stability F VG G G E G F G
                    Compatibility with mineral oil E E E G F P P P
                    Low volatility F E G E E G G G
                    Compatibility with paints and finishes E E E P P G P VG
                    E=excellent; VG=very good; G=good; F=fair; P=poor