Industrial lubricants and the move to Zinc-free hydraulic fluids

Fluid specifications have evolved slowly, almost imperceptibly, during the past three decades and in more recent years, increasing pressures from numerous sources have united to transform the demands placed upon hydraulic fluids.

For OEMs the latest approvals are extremely challenging, but can be met using the excellent oxidation and wear characteristics of zinc-free hydraulic fluids. Previously generally considered for environmentally sensitive applications, zinc-free fluids offer a doorway through which to access a whole host of wider performance benefits.

Growth market

Hydraulic fluid is the second biggest market, after process oils, within industrial lubricants and is forecast to keep growing, presenting a sizeable opportunity for those willing to exploit it. ‘Expansion in core hydraulic industries, such as construction, is partly responsible for this growth,’ explains Alan Henderson, Industrial Marketing Specialist at Afton Chemical. ‘There is also increasing diversity in hydraulic applications – which can encompass anything from wind turbine pitch control systems to textiles production.’

Extensive ranges of specialist fluids could have been developed to cover each application type, but this would have been impractical. The status quo thus became a general set of broad and fairly basic specifications for general hydraulic fluids. Over time, the industry has largely maintained its low expectations of hydraulic fluid performance. In a market with little differentiation, this has resulted in a race to the bottom on cost.

But the situation has changed: with every new generation of machinery, greater performance demands from hydraulic systems have followed.


Increases in power density; the drive for greater efficiency; ever more severe operating conditions with higher temperatures and pressures; smaller reservoirs with less time for fluid to recuperate from the constant onslaught of heat, air, water and dirt. In the context of the rapid hardware development seen over the past few years, cost – while always important – should no longer be the prime driver of fluid ‘choice.’

Meeting standards Global oil companies were the first to recognise that higher performing fluids presented an opportunity for true differentiation. Marketing stronger end user benefits created a platform for achieving better margin, but this approach seems to have been limited to top tier fluids. There needs to be a shift away from the lowest cost way to meet industry minimum standards, towards more considered solutions that offer reliability, efficiency and greater value.

Hydraulic fluid is often said to be the most crucial component in any hydraulic system. Machines need to operate reliably for hundreds or even thousands of hours, in hot, freezing, wet and/or dirty conditions.

The biggest hole in the end user’s pocket is caused by downtime, and this is where fluid quality can make a real difference. Low-priced fluids can’t compensate for equipment that breaks down unexpectedly or more often, prematurely worn parts that need swapping out, or more frequent maintenance intervals to maintain all-important ‘reliability.’

It’s not just oil marketers and operators that benefit from the right fluid. OEMs have risen to the multiple challenges of increased power density and efficiency, only to find their equipment at risk of higher failure rates and potential warranty claims in the field.

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