Experts agree. Though it is more expensive, synthetic oil is a better bet than conventional motor oil for most cars today. Synthetic oil provides better engine performance and protection between oil changes. It can even lengthen the duration between those changes. But what are some of the characteristics that make synthetic oil a better option than its conventional cousin? What are its benefits? And how is synthetic motor oil made?
What is the purpose of motor oil?
It may seem obvious that motor oil is used to lubricate the moving parts inside your engine. When engine components – pistons, rods, valves, and the like – rub against each other they produce friction. That friction creates heat and causes the parts wear. A thin coating of oil separates these surfaces so they do not rub directly against one another. Wear is minimized and so is the heat. The oil is pumped throughout your engine to make sure no metal parts come into direct contact with any other.
Motor oil performs other duties at the same time. It prevents deposits from forming, carries away impurities, and protects against corrosion too. Through the use of additives, oil manufacturers can tailor the features of motor oil to lubricate, clean, and protect your engine.
Why is synthetic oil better than conventional oil?
Oftentimes synthetic and conventional oils have the same origins. They can both be made from crude oil. But synthetics boast a number of advantages.
Because synthetic oils are more resistant to breakdown over time, they offer better protection against engine wear. Since they are more refined, synthetics also contain fewer impurities than conventional oil and resist sludge formation. Synthetic oils flow better in low temperatures and maintain more consistent viscosity, especially at high temperatures. Some experts suggest that, because of its tendency toward consistency over time, synthetic oil provides a longer duration between oil changes – even upwards of 20k miles.
Synthetic oil also does a better job of providing cold-weather startups. An oil’s viscosity, how thick it is (actually, its resistance to flow), goes down as it heats up. It gets thinner. So, an oil with optimal viscosity when your engine is warm would naturally be thicker (higher viscosity) when the engine is cold, making it more difficult to lubricate when you first start your car in the cold. To combat this, oil manufacturers add chemicals to conventional oil that increase viscosity as engine temperatures rise. Conventional oil needs to be modified with additives to offer multi-viscosity abilities. But synthetic oil has this quality inherent in its makeup.
So, how is synthetic oil made?
Whereas conventional oil is distilled from crude oil extracted from the earth, synthetic motor oil is created artificially in a lab from various chemical compounds. Sometimes synthetic oil begins with petroleum products that have been chemically modified, rather than whole crude oil. Other times, it is derived from different raw compounds.
The creation of synthetic oils began in the nineteen-twenties when the Fischer-Tropsch process (a set of chemical reactions) was developed as a way to change carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases into liquid hydrocarbons. The process grew larger into view during WWII as Germany found itself in need of a solution for a crude oil shortage, and again during the fuel crisis in the US in the nineteen-seventies. Since then, oil companies have been working tirelessly (and discreetly) to come up with advances in synthetic oil technology.
Not all manufacturers of synthetic oil use the same approach in the creation of their products. In fact, the processes they use are closely guarded trade secrets. The truth is, no company is going to offer up their proprietary process or formula.
What is known is that synthetic oils are far more refined than conventional oils. Conventional oil is distilled from crude oil. Because of that, it naturally contains impurities that can build up in your engine and lead to sludge. It also oxidizes and acidifies more easily and breaks down more quickly.
But synthetic oil starts with a far more refined base product than crude. Actually, synthetic oil ranges in grades, from that which starts from mineral oils extracted from crude (Group I and II) to that which is designed from fully artificial, compound-based oils (Group V). The performance of a particular oil can depend on which group it inhabits. Generally speaking, a high performing synthetic motor oil falls into Group IV.
In any case, synthetic oil starts with a high-quality, refined base stock and is chemically modified through a complex process to make its molecules of consistent size for better performance before additives are included. Raw materials are blended with artificial chemical compounds not found in natural crude oil. Uniformly sized and weighted oil molecules are formed, providing more consistent lubrication. Additives included in the formula also perform better. Lower viscosities for small, fuel-efficient engines are possible with synthetics where they are not with conventional.
Because of the higher degree of refinement, and the advanced technology that goes into its design and production, synthetic motor oil has one glaring drawback: it costs significantly more than conventional oil. But its advantages – including better engine protection and longer oil change intervals – can certainly offset the cost.
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