Lubricants have been in some use for thousands of years. Calcium soaps have been identified on the axles of chariots dated to 1400 BC. Building stones were slid on oil-impregrated lumber in the time of the pyramids. In the Roman era, lubricants were based on olive oil and rapeseed oil, as well as animal fats. The growth of lubrication accelerated in the Industrial Revolution with the accompanying use of metal-based machinery. Relying initially on natural oils, needs for such machinery shifted toward petroleum-based materials early in the 1900s. A breakthrough came with the development of vacuum distillation of petroleum, as described by the Vacuum Oil Company. This technology allowed the purification of very nonvolatile substances, which are common in many lubricants..
Motor oil is a lubricant used in internal combustion engines, which power cars, motorcycles, lawnmowers, engine-generators, and many other machines. In engines, there are parts which move against each other, and the friction wastes otherwise useful power by converting the kinetic energy to heat. It also wears away those parts, which could lead to lower efficiency and degradation of the engine. This increases fuel consumption and decreases power output and can lead to engine failure.
Lubricating oil creates a separating film between surfaces of adjacent moving parts to minimize direct contact between them, decreasing heat caused by friction and reducing wear, thus protecting the engine. In use, motor oil transfers heat through conduction as it flows through the engine. In an engine with a recirculating oil pump, this heat is transferred by means of airflow over the exterior surface of the [oil pan], airflow through an oil cooler and through oil gases evacuated by the Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) system. While modern recirculating pumps are typically provided in passenger cars and other engines similar or larger in size, total loss oiling is a design option that remains popular in small and miniature engines.
In petrol (gasoline) engines, the top piston ring can expose the motor oil to temperatures of 160 °C (320 °F). In diesel engines, the top ring can expose the oil to temperatures over 315 °C (600 °F). Motor oils with higher viscosity indices thin less at these higher temperatures.
Coating metal parts with oil also keeps them from being exposed to oxygen, inhibiting oxidation at elevated operating temperatures preventing rust or corrosion. Corrosion inhibitors may also be added to the motor oil. Many motor oils also have detergents and dispersants added to help keep the engine clean and minimize oil sludge build-up. The oil is able to trap soot from combustion in itself, rather than leaving it deposited on the internal surfaces. It is a combination of this, and some singeing that turns used oil black after some running.
Rubbing of metal engine parts inevitably produces some microscopic metallic particles from the wearing of the surfaces. Such particles could circulate in the oil and grind against moving parts, causing wear. Because particles accumulate in the oil, it is typically circulated through an oil filter to remove harmful particles. An oil pump, a vane or gear pump powered by the engine, pumps the oil throughout the engine, including the oil filter. Oil filters can be a full flow or bypass type.
In the crankcase of a vehicle engine, motor oil lubricates rotating or sliding surfaces between the crankshaft journal bearings (main bearings and big-end bearings) and rods connecting the pistons to the crankshaft. The oil collects in an oil pan, or sump, at the bottom of the crankcase. In some small engines such as lawn mower engines, dippers on the bottoms of connecting rods dip into the oil at the bottom and splash it around the crankcase as needed to lubricate parts inside. In modern vehicle engines, the oil pump takes oil from the oil pan and sends it through the oil filter into oil galleries, from which the oil lubricates the main bearings holding the crankshaft up at the main journals and camshaft bearings operating the valves. In typical modern vehicles, oil pressure-fed from the oil galleries to the main bearings enters holes in the main journals of the crankshaft.
From these holes in the main journals, the oil moves through passageways inside the crankshaft to exit holes in the rod journals to lubricate the rod bearings and connecting rods. Some simpler designs relied on these rapidly moving parts to splash and lubricate the contacting surfaces between the piston rings and interior surfaces of the cylinders. However, in modern designs, there are also passageways through the rods which carry oil from the rod bearings to the rod-piston connections and lubricate the contacting surfaces between the piston rings and interior surfaces of the cylinders. This oil film also serves as a seal between the piston rings and cylinder walls to separate the combustion chamber in the cylinder head from the crankcase. The oil then drips back down into the oil pan.
Motor oil may also serve as a cooling agent. In some constructions, oil is sprayed through a nozzle inside the crankcase onto the piston to provide cooling of specific parts that undergo high-temperature strain. On the other hand, the thermal capacity of the oil pool has to be filled, i.e. the oil has to reach its designed temperature range before it can protect the engine under high load. This typically takes longer than heating the main cooling agent – water or mixtures thereof – up to its operating temperature. In order to inform the driver about the oil temperature, some older and most high-performance or racing engines feature an oil thermometer.
Most motor oils are made from a heavier, thicker petroleum hydrocarbon base stock derived from crude oil, with additives to improve certain properties. The bulk of a typical motor oil consists of hydrocarbons with between 18 and 34 carbon atoms per molecule. One of the most important properties of motor oil in maintaining a lubricating film between moving parts is its viscosity. The viscosity of a liquid can be thought of as its "thickness" or a measure of its resistance to flow. The viscosity must be high enough to maintain a lubricating film, but low enough that the oil can flow around the engine parts under all conditions. The viscosity index is a measure of how much the oil's viscosity changes as temperature changes. A higher viscosity index indicates the viscosity changes less with temperature than a lower viscosity index.
Motor oil must be able to flow adequately at the lowest temperature it is expected to experience in order to minimize metal to metal contact between moving parts upon starting up the engine. The pour point defined first this property of motor oil, as defined by ASTM D97 as "...an index of the lowest temperature of its utility..." for a given application, but the cold-cranking simulator (CCS, see ASTM D5293-08) and mini-rotary viscometer (MRV, see ASTM D3829-02(2007), ASTM D4684-08) are today the properties required in motor oil specs and define the SAE classifications.
Oil is largely composed of hydrocarbons which can burn if ignited. Still another important property of motor oil is its flash point, the lowest temperature at which the oil gives off vapors which can ignite. It is dangerous for the oil in a motor to ignite and burn, so a high flash point is desirable. At a petroleum refinery, fractional distillation separates a motor oil fraction from other crude oil fractions, removing the more volatile components, and therefore increasing the oil's flash point (reducing its tendency to burn).
Another manipulated property of motor oil is its total base number (TBN), which is a measurement of the reserve alkalinity of an oil, meaning its ability to neutralize acids. The resulting quantity is determined as mg KOH/ (gram of lubricant). Analogously, total acid number (TAN) is the measure of a lubricant's acidity. Other tests include zinc, phosphorus, or sulfur content, and testing for excessive foaming.
The Noack volatility test (ASTM D-5800) determines the physical evaporation loss of lubricants in high temperature service. A maximum of 14% evaporation loss is allowable to meet API SL and ILSAC GF-3 specifications. Some automotive OEM oil specifications require lower than 10%.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has established a numerical code system for grading motor oils according to their viscosity characteristics. The original viscosity grades were all mono-grades, e.g. a typical engine oil was a SAE 30. This is because as all oils thin when heated, so to get the right film thickness at operating temperatures oil manufacturers needed to start with a thick oil. This meant that in cold weather it would be difficult to start the engine as the oil was too thick to crank. However, oil additive technology was introduced that allowed oils to thin more slowly (i.e. to retain a higher viscosity index); this allowed selection of a thinner oil to start with, e.g. "SAE 15W-30", a product that acts like an SAE 15 at cold temperatures (15W for winter) and like an SAE 30 at 100 °C (212 °F).
Therefore, there is one set which measures cold temperature performance (0W, 5W, 10W, 15W and 20W). The second set of measurements is for high temperature performance (8, 12, 16, 20, 30, 40, 50). The document SAE J300 defines the viscometrics related to these grades.
Kinematic viscosity is graded by measuring the time it takes for a standard amount of oil to flow through a standard orifice at standard temperatures. The longer it takes, the higher the viscosity and thus the higher the SAE code. Larger numbers are thicker.
The SAE has a separate viscosity rating system for gear, axle, and manual transmission oils, SAE J306, which should not be confused with engine oil viscosity. The higher numbers of a gear oil (e.g., 75W-140) do not mean that it has higher viscosity than an engine oil. In anticipation of new lower engine oil viscosity grades, to avoid confusion with the "winter" grades of oil the SAE adopted SAE 16 as a standard to follow SAE 20 instead of SAE 15. Regarding the change Michael Covitch of Lubrizol, Chair of the SAE International Engine Oil Viscosity Classification (EOVC) task force was quoted stating "If we continued to count down from SAE 20 to 15 to 10, etc., we would be facing continuing customer confusion problems with popular low-temperature viscosity grades such as SAE 10W, SAE 5W, and SAE 0W," he noted. "By choosing to call the new viscosity grade SAE 16, we established a precedent for future grades, counting down by fours instead of fives: SAE 12, SAE 8, SAE 4
A single-grade engine oil, as defined by SAE J300, cannot use a polymeric viscosity index improver (VII, also viscosity modifier, VM) additive. SAE J300 has established eleven viscosity grades, of which six are considered Winter-grades and given a W designation. The 11 viscosity grades are 0W, 5W, 10W, 15W, 20W, 25W, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60. These numbers are often referred to as the "weight" of a motor oil, and single-grade motor oils are often called "straight-weight" oils.
For single winter grade oils, the dynamic viscosity is measured at different cold temperatures, specified in J300 depending on the viscosity grade, in units of mPa·s, or the equivalent older non-SI units, centipoise (abbreviated cP), using two different test methods. They are the cold-cranking simulator (ASTM D5293) and the mini-rotary viscometer (ASTM D4684). Based on the coldest temperature the oil passes at, that oil is graded as SAE viscosity grade 0W, 5W, 10W, 15W, 20W, or 25W. The lower the viscosity grade, the lower the temperature the oil can pass. For example, if an oil passes at the specifications for 10W and 5W, but fails for 0W, then that oil must be labeled as an SAE 5W. That oil cannot be labeled as either 0W or 10W.
For single non-winter grade oils, the kinematic viscosity is measured at a temperature of 100 °C (212 °F) in units of mm2/s (millimeter squared per second) or the equivalent older non-SI units, centistokes (abbreviated cSt). Based on the range of viscosity the oil falls in at that temperature, the oil is graded as SAE viscosity grade 20, 30, 40, 50, or 60. In addition, for SAE grades 20, 30, and 40, a minimum viscosity measured at 150 °C (302 °F) and at a high-shear rate is also required. The higher the viscosity, the higher the SAE viscosity grade is.
The temperature range the oil is exposed to in most vehicles can be wide, ranging from cold temperatures in the winter before the vehicle is started up to hot operating temperatures when the vehicle is fully warmed up in hot summer weather. A specific oil will have high viscosity when cold and a lower viscosity at the engine's operating temperature. The difference in viscosities for most single-grade oil is too large between the extremes of temperature. To bring the difference in viscosities closer together, special polymer additives called viscosity index improvers, or VIIs, are added to the oil. These additives are used to make the oil a multi-grade motor oil, though it is possible to have a multi-grade oil without the use of VIIs. The idea is to cause the multi-grade oil to have the viscosity of the base grade when cold and the viscosity of the second grade when hot. This enables one type of oil to be used all year. In fact, when multi-grades were initially developed, they were frequently described as all-season oil. The viscosity of a multi-grade oil still varies logarithmically with temperature, but the slope representing the change is lessened.
The SAE designation for multi-grade oils includes two viscosity grades; for example, 10W-30 designates a common multi-grade oil. The first number '10W' is the equivalent grade of the single grade oil that has the oil's viscosity at cold temperature and the second number is the grade of the equivalent single-grade oil that describes its viscosity at 100 °C (212 °F). Note that both numbers are grades and not viscosity values. The two numbers used are individually defined by SAE J300 for single-grade oils. Therefore, an oil labeled as 10W-30 must pass the SAE J300 viscosity grade requirement for both 10W and 30, and all limitations placed on the viscosity grades (for example, a 10W-30 oil must fail the J300 requirements at 5W). Also, if an oil does not contain any VIIs, and can pass as a multi-grade, that oil can be labeled with either of the two SAE viscosity grades. For example, a very simple multi-grade oil that can be easily made with modern base oils without any VII is a 20W-20. This oil can be labeled as 20W-20, 20W, or 20. Note, if any VIIs are used, however, then that oil cannot be labeled as a single grade.
Breakdown of VIIs under shear is a concern in motorcycle applications, where the transmission may share lubricating oil with the motor. For this reason, motorcycle-specific oil is sometimes recommended. The necessity of higher-priced motorcycle-specific oil has also been challenged by at least one consumer organization
Synthetic lubricants were first synthesized, or man-made, in significant quantities as replacements for mineral lubricants (and fuels) by German scientists in the late 1930s and early 1940s because of their lack of sufficient quantities of crude for their (primarily military) needs. A significant factor in its gain in popularity was the ability of synthetic-based lubricants to remain fluid in the sub-zero temperatures of the Eastern front in wintertime, temperatures which caused petroleum-based lubricants to solidify owing to their higher wax content. The use of synthetic lubricants widened through the 1950s and 1960s owing to a property at the other end of the temperature spectrum – the ability to lubricate aviation engines at high temperatures that caused mineral-based lubricants to break down. In the mid-1970s, synthetic motor oils were formulated and commercially applied for the first time in automotive applications. The same SAE system for designating motor oil viscosity also applies to synthetic oils.
Synthetic oils are derived from either Group III, Group IV, or some Group V bases. Synthetics include classes of lubricants like synthetic esters (Group V) as well as "others" like GTL (methane gas-to-liquid) (Group III +) and polyalpha-olefins (Group IV). Higher purity and therefore better property control theoretically means synthetic oil has better mechanical properties at extremes of high and low temperatures. The molecules are made large and "soft" enough to retain good viscosity at higher temperatures, yet branched molecular structures interfere with solidification and therefore allow flow at lower temperatures. Thus, although the viscosity still decreases as temperature increases, these synthetic motor oils have a higher viscosity index over the traditional petroleum base. Their specially designed properties allow a wider temperature range at higher and lower temperatures and often include a lower pour point. With their improved viscosity index, synthetic oils need lower levels of viscosity index improvers, which are the oil components most vulnerable to thermal and mechanical degradation as the oil ages, and thus they do not degrade as quickly as traditional motor oils. However, they still fill up with particulate matter, although the matter better suspends within the oil, and the oil filter still fills and clogs up over time. So periodic oil and filter changes should still be done with synthetic oil, but some synthetic oil suppliers suggest that the intervals between oil changes can be longer, sometimes as long as 16,000–24,000 kilometres (9,900–14,900 mi) primarily due to reduced degradation by oxidation.
Tests show that fully synthetic oil is superior in extreme service conditions to conventional oil, and may perform better for longer under standard conditions. But in the vast majority of vehicle applications, mineral oil-based lubricants, fortified with additives and with the benefit of over a century of development, continue to be the predominant lubricant for most internal combustion engine applications.