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« More Back To The Future | Main | Attack Of A Giant Woman »

Better Living Through Chemistry

This is a nice incremental breakthrough from a "save the planet" standpoint, but they miss out on another benefit, I think:

In laboratory tests, these new boric acid suspensions have reduced by as much as two-thirds the energy lost through friction as heat. This could result in a four or five percent reduction in fuel consumption, according to Ali Erdemir, senior scientist in Argonne’s Energy Systems Division.

Four to five percent reduction in fuel use is nothing to sneeze at, given current gas prices, but I would think that it would also (much more) dramatically reduce engine wear, if it really reduces friction losses that much.

When I was a kid, it was standard procedure to rebuild an automobile engine after (if you were lucky) a hundred thousand miles or so, replacing piston rings and rod bearings, to prevent the blue smoke of oil that found its way past the rings into the combustion chamber, and the risk of throwing a rod from a worn bearing. Most cars were, in fact, designed to allow this to be done without removing the engine (not MGs, though...).

I had a 1986 Honda Accord that I bought in 1987 with about twelve thousand miles on it, and sold it about three years ago, a quarter of a million miles later, with no major engine work, other than having to replace a distributor shaft that had seized up and sheared off. It had lots of problems associated with a deteriorating car, but not a worn engine.

I don't know whether or not this is due to better materials, better lubricants, or a combination of the two (I suspect the latter). I did in fact use Castrol Syntech synthetic oil in it, which supposedly had the same effect as "Slick 50," a nostrum that you poured into your oil to provide a teflon coating to the engine parts. I was inspired to do this in the mid-eighties by a colleague at Rockwell who used it in his Cessna 180, and told me that when he tore down the engine for its required FAA maintenance after the standard number of hours, he could discern no wear.

I think that we're in an era now in which cars become obsolete or unfashionable long before their engines (and probably transmissions) wear out. This breakthrough, if it works as advertised, will simply advance that trend.

[Tuesday update]

There's a lot of discussion in comments about oil-change intervals. I wouldn't necessarily take the advice of an oil manufacturer on this--they're not exactly disinterested parties. Traditionally, the car's owner's manual will specify what the manufacturer recommends (who still has a dog in the fight, but a much smaller one unless you do your work at the dealer).

Interestingly, our 2000 BMW 323i doesn't have a fixed specified service frequency. It actually computes it based on how much fuel is used, speed, etc. It actually has an indicator saying how many miles until the next scheduled service, which can vary up or down depending on what you did on your last trip. But in the factory shop manual (I generally buy one for every car I own--they tend to pay for themselves, despite the high price), it indicates that an oil service should be done in between each major service. And a major service is estimated to occur every thirty thousand miles, or twenty four months, whichever comes soonest. That implies that the fanatical Teutonic engineers in Munich think that the oil shouldn't generally need changing more often than every fifteen thousand miles. Of course, they also recommend BMW-brand synthetic...

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 06, 2007 03:58 PM
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Castrol Syntech is a good oil. Pennzoil Platinum I think is a tad better with its higher molybdenum. Havoline deposit shield has a lot of protective additives as well. Mobil 1 is a great oil, its just not the end all, be all of oils. You can find a oil that works just as well without having to spend so much.

The funny thing is most of the "synthetic" oils you buy aren't really synthetics. They are just exceptionally stable conventional oils with just a little bit of true synthetic blended in to improve their cold flow performance. You don't really need a true synthetic like Royal Purple or Amsoil unless your interested in trying to stretch your change interval to over 8000 miles. Overall, any major brand name conventional oil is going to work pretty well when changed under 5000 miles.

That oil you bought back in 1986 actually had more protective additives in the oil then the stuff you buy now. They removed many of the barrier film additives because they damage the catalytic converters if they get into the exhaust stream. Now they use a moly additive for much of the anti-wear protection nowadays. You could replace the barrier film additives with something like Slick 50 or you can buy a "high mileage" oil, i.e. Castrol High Mileage or Valvoline Maxlife. Keep in mind these barrier film additives oxidize quickly and the older 3000 mile change intervals maybe more appropriate. Also, they could potentially void a newer cars warranty; hence, one of the reason they market them for cars over 75,000 miles.

Posted by Josh Reiter at August 6, 2007 07:59 PM

I should have added to the first thought on the second paragraph. What your buying when you purchase a so called "synthetic" conventional oil is more protection if one does a lot of cold starts. Which umm, *raises hand*, I'm really bad at jumping in and tearing off.

Posted by Josh Reiter at August 6, 2007 08:12 PM

I spent ten years in the parts/service department of a GM dealership, ten years ago. Materials and lubricants are important, as is engine design. You might be amazed at how professional engine design engineers can make some oh so obvious mistakes that lead to improper lubrication flow etc. resulting in shortened engine life. Or mixing dissimilar materials in ways that leads to leaks, damage etc. The Cadillac HT4100 leaps to mind, I got to the point that I could pull all the parts for a major overhaul of the "hook and tow" in my sleep.

Engines are being built to higher standards and better designs these days, but I believe electronic components are now the major downfall of many engines. You may have an engine that will mechanically last for 100's of thousands of miles,
but have all sorts of failed ignition and engine control parts fail in that time and that could mean thousands of dollars worth of repair over time. Electronic coils, crank sensors, throttle position sensors, O2 sensors, ECM, manifold air pressure sensors, mass airflow sensors, the list goes on. And even today, with the most advanced diagnostic equipment, finding the cause of a intermittent electronic is often a hit or miss proposition.

Personally I prefer an older, carburetor equipped, conventional ignition engine. It may require a bit more routine care, but it is work I can do at home.

Posted by Cecil Trotter at August 7, 2007 05:46 AM

With direct injection and electronics, cars have become much more reliable and well behaving nowadays. Especially in my country where the weather varies from -25C to +25 C with different moistures, every year.

My parents used to have a 1990 Opel that had all kinds of electrical problems, but the new 2000 model has worked pretty much flawlessly. So technology does move forward at least in one segment. I guess they learned from their mistakes.

There are still some obvious stupid mistakes, like the parking brake getting stuck, you just can't use it when it's moist and freezing.

Since most of the engine problems have been solved, I think nowadays cars have a lot of problems with auxiliary electrical equipment like all the small motors and lamps that are installed everywhere. This is more of an inconvenience, but is still annoying.

Then there is still the valid issue of rust at the bottom. Finland uses heavy salt spreading on major roads to prevent ice, and that is really bad chemically for automobiles. The bottom sides would only last if they were made of plastic, or covered in it. That would have the upshot of not being so bump sensitive too. It might look ugly though.

Posted by mz at August 7, 2007 05:59 AM

I have a 1987 Alfa Romeo Milano that I purchased in 1989 with 6,000 miles on it. It now has 228,000 miles, with no major engine work, not even a valve job. The engine uses a quart of oil every 3500 miles at the moment, nearly the same usage as when I purchased it.

I've used Mobil 1 in it since I purchased it. I have no idea if this is why the engine has lasted so long, but I suspect it is, as I have known of lots of other Alfas with the same engine that didn't fare as well.

Mobil 1 being rather expensive, it's not clear that this is actually cheaper than rebuilding the engine every 100,000 miles or so. But, it's a pain to rebuild engines, and I'd rather avoid it.

Posted by Henry Bowman at August 7, 2007 07:32 AM

This is an excellent and informative post (and comments). I have been slow to adopt the new "synthetic blends" and now I am wondering if that contributed to my Subaru throwing a rod last year. I think it's time to rethink my oil purchases. Thanks for the info.

Posted by CosmicConservative at August 7, 2007 07:34 AM

I have a 96 Jeep Cherokee and my 89 Cherokee that I sold three years ago now has nearly a quarter of a million miles on it. That straight six is a hell of a motor.

I keep Mobil 1 in my current and change it once a year. Tensds to run about 5000-6000 miles between changes.

Posted by Mike Puckett at August 7, 2007 07:52 AM

Dad owned a salvage yard, and made his living as a mechanic. I saw a lot of broken autos. In almost every case not involving accident the cause of damage was lack of lubrication.

Key to an automobile's long life is regular lubrication. When buying a new car, change the lubricants at 1K to 1.5K miles to eliminate the small metal shearings from the breaking in period, then change them at the recommended intervals. Don't worry about the lubricant brand name, worry about the mileage interval. I say lubricants because you should change engine oil, transmission fluid, differential grease, lubricate ball joints and suspension components, etc. Don't forget the hinges, catches, door locks and the like. Changing belts and hoses as needed will be beneficial as well.

Adding it all up, I've driven somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million miles with 2 mechanical breakdowns (sheared oil pump shaft on a '67 Cutlass and frozen bearing on a belt tensioner on a '90 Cherokee). And while the old cars had more personality and are way cooler, new cars are as a group more reliable and built to closer tolerances.

Posted by razorbacker at August 7, 2007 08:16 AM

Transmissions on Fords break down way before 100K miles;)

(former owner of a Sable that required TWO tranny rebuilds before 88K miles; f'in lemon)

Of course the Toyota I now drive has had practically nothing done to it except replace a couple belts, and has 100K miles and counting. Made in Japan, by robots. Much better than "one out of three bolts ain't bad" UAW motto

Posted by David at August 7, 2007 08:26 AM

With fuel injection and oxygen sensors, engines no longer wash away all of the lubrication with unburned fuel prior to starting. This prolongs the life of the rings and valve seals more than high-tech lubricants do.

If this new lubricant will save on heat induced energy loss it will be the next most important innovation.

Posted by Some Seppo at August 7, 2007 08:33 AM

I was 'fogging mosquitoes' with my old Voyager minivan several years ago, at a little over 100,000 miles. Switched to Pennzoil or Castrol High Mileage blend (whichever was handy). Mosquitoes have been happy and healthy the last 40,000+ miles. I figure those oils must have something that reconditions valve stem seals (it was most noticable as low speed acceleration smoke.)

Posted by Glenmore at August 7, 2007 09:19 AM

I've owned three light trucks in the past 28 years. A '79 GMC, an '88 Jeep and a'95 Ford.

Each was purchased new with the base model I-6 engine. Each has been driven in excess of 200k miles.

I've never spent a single solitary cent for engine repair on any of them. I've never used anything but the cheapest on sale spec motor oil in any of them.

Posted by Karl at August 7, 2007 09:51 AM

At our company years ago tests of bearings in a plant air compressor showed the great benefits of Royal Purple synthetic.
Before switching to the auto version of it in my '01 F150, I also used MT-10 additive from Muscle Products (stupid name) in my 230,000 mile reached 1990 Bronco. Slick 50's teflon reportedly can cause problems from the teflon.

Posted by at August 7, 2007 09:55 AM

I bought a new Ford Explorer Sport in Jan. 2000. I changed the oil the first time at 62,000 miles. I changed the oil a total of 7 times by June of this year when I traded vehicles. The mileage at trade-in time was 234,000. The only work done to it was a clutch replacement and new shocks in 2004. Also, other minor stuff like fuses and bulbs. It was still going strong when I traded. It still accelerated crossing the mountain in Hot Springs, NC. I passed people going up the mountain. I traveled from TN to NC on the "old" roads twice a week the whole time I had this vehicle. On weekends, I often used it to pull 4 wheelers as far into the hills as it would go on logging roads and gravel roads that had very little surface area intact. Not exactly what you would call easy miles. My husband learned to drive a straight drive on this vehicle. The only reason I traded was my Dad was convinced the vehicle was going to "leave me sitting". I wouldn't advise this, I'm sure I was very lucky, but it is true. I'm almost scared to "baby" my new Ford truck. Karma or something is just bound to teach me a lesson.

Posted by Ravin at August 7, 2007 10:09 AM

Um, not to sound sexist (OK, maybe I am), but when you said you "changed the oil the first time at 62,000 miles," it was pretty clear that you were of the feminine persuasion.

Posted by Holy Crud at August 7, 2007 11:15 AM

20 years ago, I remember my dad and I reading the factory owner's manual for our 1984 Camry. It called for regular oil changes every 10,000 miles, advising more frequent changes if the car was used for towing or driven under hard conditions. To this day, we don't if the recommendation was a miles/km misprint -- even so, 6,400 miles would be high in light of today's advice -- or if the discrepency involves other factors at play.

Since the late eighties, I've seen advertisements and recommendations for oil changes drop from 5,000 to 3,000 miles, with the latter being borderline ridiculous. Of course there's plenty of support for such frequent changes. Oil manufacturers like it because they sell more motor oil. FLAPS and service departments prefer it because they do more business. The car manufacturers like it because it means someone with a basic knowledge of automotive maintenance is poking around under the hood on a regular basis, and could spot a small problem before it grows catastrophic and results in a warranty claim or a hit to their reputation of reliability. So yeah, there are quite a bit of factors at play with some of the recommedations floating around. Same goes for the advocation of the expensive Gucci oils out there; regular examination -- and preventive maintenance as necessary -- is key. Just sayin'.

Regardless, I agree with another's observation: this post and comments is full of useful information and interesting anecdotes... and I agree that anything that does more to reduce fuel consumption or increase the life cycle of an automobile would be timely and well-received.

Posted by Stephen at August 7, 2007 11:19 AM

Jeez guys this is a great series of posts. I've got a Saab 9 5 with 100 K on it using no oil ( mobil 1 synthetic) and getting 35 mpg av. my excursion has 160 K and I have been running Castrol syntec 5/30 but it's starting to consume it. I think I'll try the High Mileage or Pennzoil. unless there is a better option. Grat info.

Posted by Kendall at August 7, 2007 11:29 AM

I'll click over 100K on my 2002 S2000 this weekend. I had clutch work two weeks ago, but no engine trouble. However, the headlight assembly leaked and shorted out the zenon headlight at the tune of one grand.

Posted by Leland at August 7, 2007 11:36 AM

But you notice that as everyone states (correctly) that engines are a lot better and more long-lived than they were in years past, no one talked about modern automatic transaxles. They are appreciably worse for reliability and service than are the engines. After four trannies in one Ford, I went manual the next time (that was not the case with Dodge or Nissan, BTW, which seemed to work better).

One trans specialist I knew attributed it to the quest for "light" and saving money by eliminating trans coolers, so they would slowly cook themselves to death.

Posted by Kurmudge at August 7, 2007 12:47 PM

One trans specialist I knew attributed it to the quest for "light" and saving money by eliminating trans coolers, so they would slowly cook themselves to death.

One of the (many) reasons I don't like to purchase cars with automatic transmissions. Unfortunately, it's getting more and more difficult to get manual in most models.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 7, 2007 12:52 PM

There are a lot of things that have contributed to longer engine life in the last 15 years. Electronic ignitions and engine computers, while they sucked in their infancy during the '80s due to their common heat related failure, nowadays almost never fail and preserve engine life by being able to make subtle changes to ignition variables in real-time based on feedback of engine and environmental conditions. Engines that run perfectly all the time last far longer than engines that run well only 70% of the time like the VWs I built and drove when i was young. Like many, I decried these new technologies when they first appeared, but over time they've proven me wrong. I'll never go back to points and condensers and carburetors and feeler gauges and timing lights. Yuck.

Also, improvements in manufacturing technology has enabled automakers to build components to tolerances well under 1/1000th of and inch, whereas 30 years ago those same components were considered well-made if they were within 5/1000ths of an inch of spec. In a car engine, which makes a million revolutions for every five or six hours of use, tiny variations in critical moving parts make huge differences in performance. The straight six cylinder engine in my '96 Jeep Cherokee was originally designed by AMC in the sixties. Sure, the design has been tweaked over the years, but it's the fact that my engine was manufactured to modern tolerances that will enable me to add another 250k miles to the 150k I've already got on her before it requires a rebuild.

Still, when this new oil comes out, you can bet I'll be buying it. All these incremental changes add up!


Posted by peter jackson at August 7, 2007 01:00 PM

Being in the lubrication business for 30 years let me add the following.
The perfect lubricant is the thinest "oil" that prevents metal to metal contact with the least amount of additives. Oil additives, while beneficial, are like medicine. All have undesirable side effects and invariably shorten the life of the lubricant. True synthetics are by definintion designed to have desirable characteristics - high viscosity index, heat stability, thin film lubrication cababilty, contaminate neutralizaion - without the need for addtitives. The more severe the operating conditions, the better the payback for synthetics.

Posted by William Rector at August 7, 2007 01:02 PM

I have a 1986 Ford F-350 with the 6.9l Navistar Diesel V8. The previous owner and I have used the same oil change regimen. Shell Rotella 15W-40 changed at 5K mile intervals. It's just about to turn 300K miles. Heads have been milled and valves ground. It uses about three quarts of oil in between changes. Not much more than it did when I got it 12 years ago.

I think that if a quality oil is used that 5K miles is a good change interval.

Posted by unclebryan at August 7, 2007 01:10 PM

On a related note, here's some fascinating info about the differences between different Teflon greases:

It appears that there are huge differences between them. One of the better lubricants tested was actually an "oil fortifier" rather than a grease. It looks like this company might actually produce some good (though expensive) products:

Posted by Tinian at August 7, 2007 01:22 PM

I have 12 small Honda motors on various machines and always use Mobil 1 in them. they hold less than a quart, so the cost is low, and the synthetic seems to hold it's viscosity better than ordinary oils, and fits my semi-annual oil changes.
I have a new Tundra with the 381 HP motor. Toyota requires 0W-20 oil. Owner's manual says you can put in 5W-20 in a pinch, but change back to 0W-20 asap. I have heard about 0W-20 in hybrids because the engines typically come on and immediately run wide open. I guess it fits my style of driving.

Posted by robert at August 7, 2007 06:54 PM

As far as change intervals go it all just depends. Every motor in every car is different. The newer cars with the oil monitoring systems actually work pretty well.

Generally any of the Group II base stocks will work fine up to 5k miles. i.e. pennzoil in the yellow bottle, Quaker in the green bottle, Castrol GTX. The nicer Group III dino oils should be fine up to 8k miles but an oil analysis or 2 would probably be a good idea for peice of mind: Mobil 1, Pennzoil Platinum, or Castrol Syntec. Keep in mind that GrpIII oils will have some amount of true Grp IV and V synthetics mixed in depending on the weight of the oil. For instance, Mobil 1 0w-40 high mileage will have a lot of Grp IV+V synthetic compared to the regular Mobil 1 10w-30.

The Group IV and Group V oils, like Royal Purple, Amsoil, German Castrol, and Redline are when things get really interesting. Beyond 8k mile change intervals it is definitely recommended to do a Oil Analysis to see how your engine is coping with the extended change intervals. An oil analysis will tell you if metal is appearing in the oil or if fuel dilution is occurring.

With a high quality Group IV or V oil and occasional oil analysis to make sure everything is staying together there are many people that go for 25k mile change intervals without incident. Keep in mind that oil burnoff with synthetics is expected and its not unusual to have to top off a quart of oil every 5k miles. So, even though you get the long change intervals its not a free ride with oil analysis and top-offs that quickly add up. Its more a bragging rights thing and a way to reduce waste oil than necessarily a cost saving measure.

If you ever want to get blow away by how seriously people take their oil then go check out Bob is the Oil Guy

Posted by Josh Reiter at August 7, 2007 10:20 PM

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