Making old motor oil as good as new

Imagine the benefits if oil could be recycled -- if instead of disappearing up smoke stacks and out automobile exhaust pipes, it could be used again and again.

Motor oil, because it is not burned as fuel, is one petroleum product with that advantage. And a number of initiatives are under way in the United States to recycle more of it.

Currently, American motorists pour at least 200 million gallons of used engine oil down the drain or onto the ground each year, making it a major source of pollution and a wasted resource. And the problem has been getting worse as more motorists change their own oil.

However, that flow of used motor oil shows signs of slowing.

Major oil companies, which in the past have shown no particular interest in cleaning up and selling waste oil, now see some potential economic benefits in the practice. And the technology for re-refining motor oil has improved dramatically, making the process increasingly attractive to those outside the energy industry as well.

"In the 1960s, re-refined oil was pretty bad stuff. And that gave the product a bad reputation," explained Dennis W. Brinkman, supervisory research chemist at the US Department of Energy's technology center in Bartlesville, Okla.

"Today, you could not tell the difference between re-refined and new oil," Dr. Brinkman asserts.

Indeed, he says that present technology can in some cases make re-refining more attractive than producing virgin motor oil because crude oil stocks worldwide are of increasingly poor quality. They are heavier and have a higher sulfur content, so they make less economical feedstocks for producing lubricants.

Husky Oil Company now is considering building its first re-refining facility in Wyoming. Engineer Phil Cowan says the decision hinges on economics, but he is already convinced a re-refined waste oil product "can be as good as any other motor oil."

Gulf Oil Company also is considering a facility to process used motor oil at its refinery location in Philadelphia.

"The diffident attitude of the major oil companies [toward re-refined oil] has disappeared," declares Emil A. Malick, project director for Phillips Petroleum Company.

Phillips developed a system for re-refining motor oil, and has sold processing plants using the new technology -- costing from $2 million to $7 million -- to several large oil companies for plants in Canada and Mexico.

Another Phillips facility has been sold to the state of North Carolina -- the first government body to undertake an oil re-refining project in this country.

"Three years ago we began a study of what we were doing with out waste oil. It was real easy to see -- all you had to do was walk around the back of one of our garages and look at the black ditch," recalled Gil Holland, director of the oil re-refining program for North Carolina.

The state's new facility, in Raleigh, is being assembled now. When completed in several months, it will have the capacity to process 2 million gallons of waste oil annually.

The facility will cost North Carolina about $2.8 million. But will provide an economic benefit to the state in the long run by enabling it to process motor oil cheaper than it will cost to buy new oil. It also will help clean up the environment.

"We have had inquiries about our system from 37 other states. I think you will see all the states with plans of some kind to re-refine waste oil in the next 10 years," Mr. Holland predicts.

The federal government also is encouraging more use of re-refined oil. After years of only buying new lubricating oils, the US military now is allowed to purchase re-refined oil.

The US Senate is considering legislation to remove a requirement that used oil carry a label identifying it as such. Many believe such labels have made consumers leary of the product. The label was required in 1965 by the Federal Trade Commission.

A significant stumbling block to recycling more motor oil is the lack of orderly collection systems in many states. Many motorists, for example, do not know where to dispose of used oil.

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