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the bases led to poor predictability of the actual composition of the resulting esters leading in turn to poorly controllable and apparently random appearance of polymerisation during the machining processing.

If this was not enough, in some cases there was formation of by-products potentially harmful to health, such as aldehydes.

All of this obviously created a lot of problems, some technical and commercial disasters and a bad reputation within the sector for the then-called “vegetable” oils that still lingers today with some end users, after more than 20 years. Nonetheless, product development and experimentation continued. A big change was made possible by the introduction of synthetic esters.

The ability to control the actual and exact composition of the esters that is possible with synthetic esters eventually allowed to formulate lubricants with high oxidation resistance, fine-tuned specifications, and consistent and predictable performance.

The presence of polar molecules in esters – which tend to adhere to metal surfaces – allows for the formation both on the metal surface that is being processed and on the machine tools used in the machining process of a tiny and tenacious film, which even at extreme pressures still hold significant lubricating properties, thus facilitating workability of the metal pieces, lower wear of metal and carbide tools and inserts, and finally to better quality surface finishing.

Esters also offer higher skin tolerability, allowing for formulations that seem to reduce the occurrence of allergic reactions and dermatitis. Workers on the factory floor seem to like them more.

The research and development efforts have finally made it possible to engineer products -both neat and soluble - that offer performances that are visibly superior to those of many of their mineral- based alternatives in terms of lubricating properties, higher flash point, longer machine tool lifetime, better cleaning properties, lower bureaucratic hassles because of friendlier health and environment characteristics.

Today such products are still costlier than their mineral- based alternatives but in Italy, because of the tax, the


price gap that the end users have to accept is lower than in other countries and therefore adoption is easier.

Whereas their market share is negligible in most other countries, it is estimated that in the metalworking sector in Italy these products cover some 15% of the market share. More interestingly they represent the key growth factor for the companies manufacturing and selling them.

As it is usual with many technological improvements and especially with improvements linked to sustainability and health protection, once end users have accepted to pay the premium price to adopt the new better technology there is rarely any going back because of the reputational damage this might entail for stakeholders and employees. Therefore, if we increasingly see end users switch from mineral-oil based to renewable-ester-based “green” products, it is extremely rare to see somebody switching back. In fact, the “green” proposition that ester-based lubricants offer for metalworking applications is one of the key, if not the sole, tools for acquiring new customers other than the classic margin-eroding low-price competition.

In Italy because of the tax on mineral-oil lubricants, the premium price that end users must accept to transition from a mineral-oil based to a “green” product is around 20-25%. This is considered reasonable by a growing number of end users. In other countries, the premium price would be higher. However, our Lube readers should be aware that: • there is a growing number of end users that to “go green” seem willing to accept premium prices even higher than 20-25% (look at what is going on with electric cars!)

• regulators always seem happy to go tough on oil and oil derivatives

• on the lookout, the price of high-quality esters is fairly stable and/or declining, whereas oil is volatile and perhaps rising.

Companies interested in offering new products for their metalworking customers willing to “go green” might, therefore, be interested in considering what is currently going on in Italy.


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