Oil additives have 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 oil additives, they have often been labeled as doing more harm than good.
Numerous studies have been published by oil companies, car makers, and oil standards organizations 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 confused about whether it is necessary to use additives in their vehicle. This article attempts to regain some accurate context and clarity on this taboo subject.
Oil is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Two of the essential attributes of this industry are stiff competition and hectic infighting for the 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 the perfect oil? Do they make the best quality oil? The answer is undoubtedly a big ‘NO.’ Let’s see why this is so. First, the expression “best quality” is entirely relative. One oil might be suitable for a particular engine type 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 the 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 endeavor 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 well-known, worldwide oil manufacturer (renowned for their quality, fully synthetic oils) spends more on marketing than on research, 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 has been notorious for tarnishing the oil additives market, 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 PAOs, 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 beneficial and help diesel particulate filters catalyze carbons. The current ash test can only determine ash content and not differentiate between good and bad. This is a significant handicap to the engine oil quality for most diesel engines that require mid- to low-SAPS lubricants.
It’s not hard to accept that these oil companies make oil surpassing 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 not good enough, and progress is hindered by having to abide by outdated specifications.
This naturally keeps one issue in focus – oil quality can be improved for optimizing performance, delivering peak output, 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 – comprises base fluid(s), with the rest being the additives. The additive chemicals add value to the positive qualities and minimize the impact of the negative attributes 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. On the other hand, synthetic base stocks 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 the automobile industry in the 1970s. Further information on oil composition can be found in our article, “What’s in Engine Oils?”
So, if additives are essentially in oil from the outset, 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 argue that additional additives would upset the carefully selected blend of existing additives.
In reality, selecting the appropriate constituents for the additives and their blending is very expensive. The end product would be costlier if the oil companies invested substantially to create better oils. 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.
The car manufacturers create another blockage. They refuse to honor 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. Their business is certainly compromised if they run longer than expected thanks to excellent engine oils charged with appropriate additives. So naturally, they would discard the idea of using such products that give engines a longer life than is needed.
Furthermore, unscrupulous individuals in the marketplace 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, manufacturers would include them in their oil. 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: additives 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.