Engine Oil Hystory

Investigating a technological innovation

• What exactly is engine oil?
• Is there any difference between supermarket cheap oil and the heavily advertised expensive one?
• Is either of these suitable for my car engine?
I will try to answer these questions investigating the necessity and the evolution of lubricants, especially the engine oil.
Very shortly after the wheel was invented, it was discovered that a smear of cooked animal fat on the axle made pushing a whole lot easier. But, which was better - roast deer fat or boiled pig?
Tests were run - lubrication technology was born!
Early cars naturally used the slippery by-products of crude oil from which their fuel was obtained to protect the sliding and rotating metal parts of the early internal combustion engines. Adjacent moving metal parts require an oil film between them to prevent seizure. It was observed that high temperatures and friction in the engines were deteriorating the oil very fast but adding other compounds in a mixture with oil was prolonged its life and enhanced its lubrication capabilities.
Advances in the 1950’s and 60’s in the petro-chemical industry led to comprehensive synthetic detergent packages for oil, and very efficient anti-wear and anti-scuff additives. Combined with advances in filtration technology, the motor car engine in the late 1960s had never been better protected. But this was not enough!
With the opening of high speed motorways around the world and metallurgy and manufacturing technology advances allowing higher revving and greater specific power outputs from engines, lubricants were still being challenged. Additives based on long chain viscosity modifiers and detergents were created to enhance the base oil but they are soon destroyed in high load conditions and the oil then reverts to its original lower viscosity grade. Fossil oils deteriorate with age, usage and mixing with fuel residues, losing...