Synthetic lubricants – types, properties and applications

Year of publication: 2022

If the lubrication of a component or machine is to be optimised or the oil changed far less often, synthetic-based products are often the method of choice. Their synthetic base oils are created 'artificially' using chemical processes, while their molecules are tailor-made to measure and usually highly robust. This usually results in the oil having a longer service life and a higher viscosity index, which enables friction-reducing, thinner oils to be used. When combined with organometallic additives, these properties improve the energy efficiency of engines, hydraulic systems and transmissions, enable their more sustainable use and therefore contribute to reducing CO2 emissions.

Table of contents

  1. Mineral or synthetic – an overview of base oils
  2. Group I to III
  3. Group IV, Polyalphaolefins (PAO)
  4. Group V
  5. Polyglykole (PAG)
  6. Synthetic esters
  7. Silicones
  8. Perfluoropolyether (PFPE) oils

'Synthetic lubricants' combine a whole host of lubricants, although they differ in their composition and properties. However, they aren't always compatible – or can't always be mixed – with other synthetic lubricants or mineral base oils.

Like their mineral counterparts, synthetic lubricants aren't manufactured based on crude oil, but on natural gas derivatives or other raw materials. Polyalphaolefins (PAO), which rank among the most common synthetic base oils, are made from ethylene and unsaturated hydrocarbons, for example. These hydrocarbons are mainly extracted from natural gas, and their molecules are converted using a chemical process (polymerisation) under the influence of catalysts. The hydrocarbons' low-viscosity, low-molecular-weight compounds (monomers) are linked to lubricating macromolecules (polymers) through chain growth reactions.

Unlike mineral oils, where a single batch of oil can contain millions of different molecular structures, the molecular sizes and shapes present in a synthetic oil are far more homogeneous. In addition, the chemically converted molecules show significantly higher levels of consistency, proving far more resistant and able to better withstand the harsh operating conditions without oxidising or thermally decomposing. This results in one of the largest benefits of synthetic lubricants: they can be used for far longer than mineral lubricants (even at elevated operating temperatures), which contributes to engines and machines being run sustainably. A further benefit of synthetic base oils is their higher viscosity index (VI). This is calculated using the viscosities measured at 40°C and 100°C. The higher the viscosity index of an oil, the lower its viscosity changes with the temperature. Due to their good viscosity temperature behaviour, synthetic lubricants can often be selected for certain applications requiring a lower viscosity than mineral lubricants. This minimises the inevitable splash and friction losses during lubrication, which in turn opens up huge potential for energy savings. The low-viscosity, synthetic-based, premium engine oils we see today are likely the best-known example of how synthetic lubricants can reduce friction and increase energy efficiency at the same time. Whereas in the past, multigrade engine oils previously had a viscosity of mostly SAE 20W-50, today it's often SAE 0W-20 and below. Low viscosity synthetic oils allow engines to run increasingly smoothly and consume less fuel.

This principle also suggests that the operation of hydraulics, bearings and gears can also benefit from synthetic lubricants if, for example, a synthetic hydraulic oil HLP 32 is used instead of a mineral HLP 46, or a synthetic CLP 220 is used instead of a mineral CLP 320 for gear oils. Thin oils also transfer heat better, which offers a few key advantages: The reduction in friction, which is further heightened with new, organometallic additives, means the temperature at the friction point and the amount of oil needed to fill the system falls. Tank volumes may be reduced during the design phase, thanks to the oil being under less thermal stress and oxidation and oil ageing slowing down. The oil also remains usable for longer. The lubricated component surfaces are smoother due to the influence of additives. A stable lubricating film that prevents abrasive wear forms more easily. This leads to components being less susceptible to requiring repair and their downtime being reduced.

Low-viscosity synthetic lubricants can reduce energy losses in such a way that energy-consuming production facilities need less energy in operation or energy-generating facilities produce greater amounts of electricity.

Overall, lubricants based on synthetic base oils enable a greater sustainable use of lubricants as well as the components supplied by them, which all contributes to reducing CO2 emissions.

Mineral or synthetic – an overview of base oils

The base oils form the foundation of all lubricants and more than 75% of the main components. Depending on the area of application, these are supplemented with additives or active ingredients. These base oils must undergo a range of processing steps and differ both in terms of performance and price level. Base oils are divided into conventional mineral oils (Groups I to III) extracted from crude oil by refining, and synthetic oils (Groups IV and V) arising from chemical processes.

Group Description Price Factor Operation Range (°C)* Density 20°C (g/ml)* Viscosity Index (VI)*
I Solvent raffinates, from conventional refining 1 -20 – 100 0,8 – 0,9 75 – 100
II Raffinates from catalytic deparaffination, low in aromatics 1,5 – 2 -25 – 110 0,8 – 0,9 85 – 115
III Semi-synthetic, hydrocracked raffinates, aromatic-/sulphur-free 2 – 3 -30 – 120 0,8 – 0,9 110 – 135
IV PAO-based synthetic oils/
Vegetable oils (HETG)
2 – 5
3 – 4
-30 – 140
-10 – 80
0,8 – 0,9
0,8 – 0,9
135 – 160
180 – 200
V Synthetic esters/
Glycols (polyalkylene) PAG/
Perfluoropolyethers (PFPE)
3 – 6
3 – 5
50 – 100
100 – 400
-30 – 170
-30 – 200
-50 – 250
-40 – 290
0,9 – 1,0
1,0 – 1,2
0,9 – 1,1
1,8 – 2,0
140 – 190
200 – 240
200 – 350
110 – 150

Compatibility / Miscibility

  • Pay careful attention when changing oil types or using flushing oils. Even residual quantities of oils of the same base, but with different additives, can impair the air and water separation behaviour and more
  • Glycol-, silicone- and PFPE-based oils can only be mixed and are only compatible with oils of the same base

* Figures are approximate values from the manufacturer's product information. These values may change depending on the viscosity, additives and the intended use.

Group I to III

Group I mineral base oils are vacuum distillates of crude oil and are now only used for applications with low technical requirements.

The base oils most commonly used today in Group II are low-aromatic and low-sulphur mineral oil raffinates. These are obtained under a hydrogen atmosphere by heat treatment, similar to Group I oils.

Group III comprises hydrocracked oils and strongly heat-treated, aromatic- and sulphur-free mineral oil raffinates. Hydrocracking is a catalytic cracking process in the presence of hydrogen at a temperature of 400°C and a pressure of 13-17 MPa. Hydrocarbon compounds are converted from gas oil or crude paraffin into long-chain molecules. Group III base oils are the mineral base oils that are subjected to the most intense refining process. Compared to Group I and II oils, they are characterised by a significantly higher viscosity index of up to 150, greater oxidation resistance and improved behaviour in cold temperatures. The end products produced using their basis are often labelled 'HC synthetic oil', 'Semi-synthetic' or even 'Synthetic' by their manufacturers. In Germany, however (and unlike in the USA), the term 'synthetic oil' may not be used for HC oils, but only for PAO and ester base oils.

Group IV, Polyalphaolefins (PAO)

Polyalphaolefins are the most commonly used synthetic base oils. They are manufactured using an ethylene base, which is obtained from intermediary products from the process of refining petroleum and natural gas. As polyalphaolefins resemble mineral oils in their chemical structure, they are often also referred to as 'synthetic mineral oils' or 'synthetic hydrocarbons' (SHC).

■ Good viscosity temperature behaviour
■ Increased natural oxidation and thermal stability
■ Low evaporation tendency
■ Miscible and compatible with almost all mineral and ester oils
■ Behaviour similar to mineral base oils with regard to paints and seals

Polyalphaolefins are used in 95% of the production of fully synthetic engine, gear and compressor oils. In addition, HEPR (hydraulic oil environmental polyalphaolefins and related products) biodegradable hydraulic fluids, for example, are based on them, too. PAOs are also contained in some physiologically harmless lubricants (NSF-H1) for the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Group V

Base oil group V is assigned to all other base oils not covered by Groups I to IV. The main synthetic base oils in Group V include polyglycols (PAG), synthetic esters, silicone oils and perfluoropolyether (PFPE) oils.

Polyglykole (PAG)

Polyalkylene glycols, known as polyglycols (PAGs) for short, are polyvalent alcohols and therefore not oils in the conventional sense. Compared to mineral-based, PAO-based or ester-based oils and most additive types, PAG oils have a significantly higher density of 1.0-1.2g/cm³ instead of around 0.9g/cm³. PAG-based oils cannot therefore be mixed with conventional oils, as they have a higher water solubility that does not settle and therefore cannot be removed. Some of these oils are even hygroscopic.

■ Very good viscosity temperature behaviour
■ Wide temperature range; good high and low temperature properties
■ Very high ageing and oxidation stability
■ Very good high-pressure (EP) properties – even without additional additives
■ Cannot be mixed with other oils
■ Compatibility with seals (except EPDM), paints and varnishes
■ Problems with aluminium at the lubrication point possible

As polyglycol oils have a high natural capacity to absorb pressure, they are primarily used for lubricating roller and slide bearings and worm gears. As high-temperature oils, they are used, among other things, in compressor and hardening oils, in metal processing and heat transfer fluids, as well as in lubricants pursuant to NSF-H1 for the food industry. They also serve as the basis for flame-retardant hydraulic fluids as well as biodegradable HEPG (hydraulicoil environmental polyglycol) hydraulic fluids. However, since polyglycols quickly absorb water, the use of HEPG should be controlled. It is a different situation when they are used in brake fluids that are also manufactured using a PAG base (with the exception of type DOT 5).

Synthetic esters

Unlike natural esters, synthetic esters aren't based on vegetable oils or animal fats. Synthetic esters are built on carboxylic acids and alcohols, while natural esters are of a biogenic origin. They are mainly used as the basis for hydraulic oils of the type HETG (hydraulic oil environmental triglyceride), which are primarily used in agriculture, forestry and other environmentally sensitive areas. Although additives are also added to these products, their resistance to ageing is significantly lower than that of their synthetic counterparts. Synthetic esters can be 'tuned' to almost any desired structure and application, whether you want excellent oxidation stability, biodegradability, good lubricity, a higher viscosity index or good characteristics at low temperatures. Using the right synthetic ester means that most properties can be achieved with only a small number of additives required. Synthetic esters are inherently prone to hydrolysis, a water-induced chemical reaction that can lead to a rapid increase in the acid number combined with a loss of viscosity. The tendency towards hydrolysis can, however, be prevented by using chemicals in the ester production process, in the form of branched carboxylic acids.

■ Good long-term properties provide high ageing stability
■ Tendency to hydrolysis; problematic in humid environments
■ Can be mixed with mineral oils and polyalphaolefins (PAO)
■ Ester-based paints may be dissolved
■ Sealing materials tend to swell

Base oils based on synthetic esters are often used in refrigerator oils. They are also used for the production of high-temperature chain lubricants, low-viscosity metalworking oils, spindle oils and flame-retardant lubricants. Based on synthetic esters, the type HEES is currently the most commonly used biodegradable hydraulic oil. Synthetic esters can be combined with polyalphaolefins to improve the solubility of additives.


Sharing a name with the element silicon and manufactured by chemical synthesis, silicone oils are polymerised siloxanes with organic side chains. Silicone oils can achieve an extremely high viscosity index and stand out due to their thermal and oxidative stability. However, these relatively expensive products are chemically inert, which means they do not react (or only react slightly) with potential reactive elements, such as metal surfaces. Additives with lubricating agents, which should remain in solution, are also problematic. The colourless silicone oils wet the surfaces with their creep properties, yet they cannot be removed by commercially available solvents. This means the test devices must be cleaned manually after undergoing testing in the laboratory. OELCHECK therefore only examines silicone oils using certain devices and samples must be marked with 'silicone oil'.

■ Wide operating temperature range
■ Extremely fluid even at low temperatures
■ Excellent oxidation stability, high thermal stability
■ Cannot be mixed with other base oils
■ An addition of a few milligrams or kilograms can change the surface tension as an anti-foam additive
■ Due to their inert behaviour, silicone oils are compatible with paints, plastics, seals and other materials

Silicone oils are mainly used in their pure form in heat transfer oils and insulating liquids. They are almost exclusively used as lubricants for plastics, while they serve as release agents and as a base liquid for sealing silicone greases. They also form the basis for some NSF-H1 hydraulic oils for the pharmaceutical industry. As defoamers, they reduce foaming, particularly in lubricants presenting a high concentration of additives. Silicone oils are also the main component of brake fluids pursuant to DOT 5. Silicone oils offer a higher dry and wet boiling point of at least 260°C or 180°C and a lower viscosity. These properties give the brake fluid faster reaction times and a longer service life.

Perfluoropolyether (PFPE) oils

The high-priced perfluoropolyether oils are produced by polymerisation of fluorinated alcohols. The atomic bond from fluorine to carbon is one of the most stable chemical compounds in its own right. The non-flammable PFPE products are extremely inert, chemically and thermally stable and therefore resistant to aggressive media and ionising radiation, even at temperatures above 200°C.

■ High viscosity index enables high operating temperatures
■ Absolute oxidative and thermal stability; highest across all base oil types
■ No appreciable evaporation loss up to around 300°C
■ PFPE oils cannot be mixed with any other base oil because of their density of around 2g/cm³
■ The 'heavy' oils behave neutrally towards paints, plastics, seals and materials

Perfluoropolyether oils are used when conventional lubricants do not provide sufficient performance. This may be the case, for example, at lubrication points in radiation-intensive areas and in chemically aggressive environments. In vacuum pumps, such as those used in semiconductor manufacturing, aggressively corrosive gases destroy traditional pump oils after a short period of time. PFPE base oils can provide assistance here. Perfluoropolyether oils are also the lubricant of choice for lubrication points under oxygen overpressure (such as oxygen fittings) and for loss-of-chain lubrication at extremely high temperatures. As PTFE-thickened lubricating grease, they are suitable as sliding and roller bearing grease for hot air fans and for applications where lifetime lubrication is required, such as in the aerospace industry.


OELCHECKER Summer 2022, page 9