A matter of refinement
With over 1.2-billion litres of finished lubricants sold in Canada each year, the environmental importance of managing the associated waste stream is significant. Used oil, if not handled properly, can result in contamination and major environmental damage.
In fact, according to Alice Chung, regional manager in charge of Newalta's North Vancouver facility (one of only two used oil re-refineries in Canada), 'Just one drop of oil is enough to contaminate all the water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.'
Every year, Newalta recycles over 36-million litres of used lube oil through its North Vancouver re-refinery to produce high-quality base oils for reuse in new lubricants. Contrary to popular belief, lubricating oil does not wear out. Rather, it becomes contaminated and the additives depleted. Newalta's patented re-refining technology allows used oil to be a renewable resource by recycling the oil many times for multiple re-use.
While the recycling of used lube oils has been possible since the late 1920s, it wasn't until 1983 that a Canadian innovation increased the viability of re-refining on a large scale. Mohawk Lubricants, purchased in 2002 by Newalta, developed the world's first commercial-scale re-refinery to use the conventional refinery processes of vacuum distillation and hydrotreating to recover clean, neutral base oil from used lubricating oil. This process became the global standard for used oil processing and was adopted by four other re-refineries in North America, including one in Breslau, Ontario.
'Through our patented re-refining process, we are able to convert what would otherwise be considered low-value waste into a valuable, renewable and sustainable resource,' says Chung. 'This prevents used oil from being burned, from requiring disposal or, worse, from entering ecosystems. We reduce the environmental footprint for our customers.'
The majority of used oil recovered comes from the automotive service industry (auto dealers, lube change shops, etc.). Other sources include pulp mills, metal working shops and other industrial operations. In many cases, the same customers from which Newalta collects the used oil also purchase the lubricants made from the re-refined product -- thus closing the environmental recycling loop.
Used oil is collected and transported to a network of service centres and transfer facilities throughout BC and Alberta. From these centres, the oil is shipped to the North Vancouver re-refinery where it's sampled and tested to ensure suitability for re-refining. In the rare case that it's unsuitable, it's redirected to other Newalta locations for processing into distillate fuel or other oil-based products.
The process of turning used oil back into clean base oil occurs in two stages, using conventional refining techniques. In the first stage, the used oil is dehydrated, defuelled and vacuum distilled to remove water, fuel, spent additives and other contaminants. The resulting 'distillate' oil is then processed through the second stage: hydrotreating. Hydrotreating reduces the aromatic content, acidity, sulphur, nitrogen and oxygen; it increases saturates content and improves oxidation stability, colour, anti-oxidant response and viscosity/temperature characteristics. The resulting base oil is sparkling clear and suitable for the high-quality lubricant formulations demanded by today's engine and hydraulic applications.
The total process from used oil to high quality base oil takes approximately five hours.
Every day in North Vancouver, over 100,000 litres of used oil is converted into base oil and other useful co-products. Out of every litre of used oil processed at the Newalta North Vancouver facility, the company produces:
• 66 per cent base oils
• 12 per cent distillate and hydrotreated fuels for industrial use
• 12 per cent asphalt extender
• 10 per cent water
'Nothing is wasted in the process,' notes Chung. 'Even the water we recover is treated and then reused by some of our industrial customers.'
THE FINISHED PRODUCT
The final quality of base oil produced is virtually indistinguishable from virgin base oil and, in the case of some customers, is preferred over virgin base oil as a lubricant blending stock.
Newalta produces three viscosity grades of neutral base oil: 100, 150 and 450 (roughly equivalent to SAE viscosity grades 5W, 10W and 30). Once the base oil has been recovered, it undergoes a number of quality assurance tests at Newalta's in-house quality control laboratory, after which it's either sold as a base oil or used by Newalta's own blending facilities. Here the base oils are combined with various additives to produce a wide range of engine and industrial oils.
In addition to a thriving custom-blend and private-label business for customers, Newalta markets its own American Petroleum Institute (API)-approved engine oils, as well as gear oils, hydraulic oils, tractor fluids, saw and chain oils, and specialty application products under the 'Mohawk' brand name.
Over the past 25 years, the re-refinery in North Vancouver has recovered over 660-million litres of used oil for re-refining and re-use in the marketplace.
'We are extremely proud of the innovative technology developed here in Vancouver and the role we continue to play in reducing society's impact on the environment,' says Chung.