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By Ed Newman
This article appeared in Power Stroke Registry, Summer Edition 2003
Making and recording measurements has been one of the hallmarks of the Age of Enlightenment. It seems like modern people measure everything. We have measures of time, such as weeks, hours, minutes, and years. We have measures of mass, such as grams, pounds and tons. We have measures of sound volume, of energy, of radioactivity, of pressure, of type font sizes, of land mass, and of speed.
AUTOMOTIVE RELATED MEASUREMENTS
MPG is the familiar acronym for miles per gallon, which measures the rate of fuel consumption in a motor vehicle. One mile per gallon equals approximately 0.4252 kilometers per liter. MPH is our common measure of speed. One mile per hour equals 22/15ths feet per second or 1.609 kilometers per hour or 0.447 meters per second.
RPM means revolutions per minute, a unit of frequency as a measure of rotation rates in mechanics. In cars RPM is measured by a tachometer. Some motorists pay attention to RPM so they don't overrev and cause component failure. Race car drivers try to keep RPM rates in a range that will provide maximum power.
A quart as a unit of volume is so named because it represents one quarter of a gallon. When measuring liquid, one quart is 32 fluid ounces, or 57.75 cubic inches. On the other hand, when measuring dry goods like pecans or blueberries, a quart is 67.201 cubic inches. Go figure.
Drums are sometimes used for measuring oil, containing 55
U.S. gallons or about 208.198 liters. Drums are not the same as barrels, the
standard unit of volume for measuring crude. One drum is equivalent to
1.3095 barrels. A barrel is equivalent to 42 U.S. gallons, which is
coincidentally the same size as a traditional wine barrel, more commonly
called a tierce.
Part of the answer comes from understanding the role that motor oils play when it comes to engine lubrication. Another part of the answer comes from understanding that we live in a scientific age in which nearly everything can be, and often has been, measured. Knowing what to measure and how to measure it is an important part of good decision making. We're talking motor oil here.
THE ROLE OF MOTOR OIL
Before we can discuss what makes a good motor oil, it helps to understand what role motor oil actually plays in the performance of an engine.
While motor oils serve a variety of functions, they are
primarily necessary to lubricate and to cool the engine. When the engine is
at rest, the motor oil sits in the bottom of the engine block in what is
called the oil pan. Upon start-up, an oil pump feeds oil from the pan to the
oil distribution system by means of a network of passages, tubes, grooves
and holes leading to the engine bearings and other surfaces needing
pressurized oil for lubrication. Other parts, like the overhead valve
system, receive a carefully controlled quantity of non-pressurized oil
through splashing or spray.
In days gone by motor oil was made from the throwaway byproducts of a barrel of crude oil after everything useful was taken from it. In those early days the filter, if you had one at all, was a by-pass type, filtering only a small percentage of the oil. In some instance the filter was little more than a screen and the oil was changed every five hundred or thousand miles. (Some of us recall grandpa's stories of tires needing to be changed on every trip to town, the idea of longevity being somewhat foreign back then.)
As cars and their engines became more sophisticated, so too the requirements of a lubricant became increasingly demanding. In the 1960's jet fighter pilots and their mechanics were becoming aware of the advantages of synthetic oils, and a few of them experimented with the notion of synthetic lubrication for automobiles. One of these pilots, Lt. Colonel Albert J. Amatuzio, went further than the haphazard experiments of his peers. His ten year quest resulted in the development of AMSOIL, the first automotive synthetic motor oil to exceed the certification requirements of the American Petroleum Institute (API).
SYNTHETIC VS. CONVENTIONAL PETROLEUM
Conventional lubricants are refined from crude oil which
has thousands of types of molecules. Refining is a process of physically
separating the impurities from the oil and further separating the light and
heavy components. Because refining separates products by weight, it groups
molecules of similar weight and dissimilar structure. The result is a
lubricant with a wide assortment of molecules. Some of the substances in
crude oil are detrimental to lubrication. Paraffins, for example, are a
common conventional oil contaminant that causes motor oil to thicken in cold
MEASURES THAT MATTER
The American Society for Testing and Materials recognized the need for uniform procedures that can be duplicated and verified by laboratories in any location. The goal of establishing standards is so important that the official publication of ASTM International is called Standardization News.
Founded in 1898 and completely voluntary, ASTM is now one of the largest non-profit standards development systems in the world. The organization currently has 134 committees that write standardized test methods for materials, products, systems and services. More than 8500 ASTM specifications have been established for products as diverse as metal, paints, plastics, textiles, energy, consumer products, medical services and instruments and even the environment.
Developing standard measurement methods is part of the
task of ASTM. Equally important is determining what measures are important,
tests that actually correspond to what the function of motor oil is intended
to fulfill. What follows here are some tests commonly used to evaluate motor
ASTM D-2270 Viscosity Index
ASTM D-5293 Cold Crank Simulator Apparent Viscosity
ASTM D-97 Pour Point
ASTM D-92 Flash Point and Fire Point
ASTM D-4683 High Temp, High Shear Viscosity
ASTM D-892 Foaming Tendency
ASTM D-4172B Four Ball Wear Test
ASTM D-5800 Noack Volatility
SAE J1321 Joint TMC/SAE Fuel Consumption Test Procedure
- Type II
So why, one might ask, isn't everyone using synthetic motor oils and lubes? Here's one possible reason. To divert attention away from the performance measures above the major oil companies focus on one other measure: price.
When people talk about price, they generally think in terms of initial cost instead of life cycle cost. Price is only an issue if you apply the 3,000 mile oil change rule to all motor oils alike. In truth, the service life of synthetics can be extended much longer due to their resistance to oxidation and other forms of degradation. With proper filtration engine oil can be safely used for much longer periods, and is thereby less costly than petroleum in the long run. Add to this the reduced fuel consumption, fewer maintenance bills and optimal performance characteristics and running anything but a premium synthetic motor oil should not even be a consideration.
As you can readily see there is no single measure that stands alone as the signature of superior performance. A motor oil serves a variety of functions in a range of roles inside the engine. What tests do show is that synthetic motor oils as a class are far and away superior to petroleum based products.
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