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At first glance, e-fluids, e-greases, and e-lubricants are unlikely to get your heart racing.
However, these seemingly unremarkable products will be essential for keeping your motor running as we inexorably towards electric cars.
For Shell, and Selda Gunsel, the company’s VP of Global Lubricants and Fuels Technology, the switch has far-reaching effects for both the business and the automotive industry as a whole.
A Rolling Contradiction?
“Our current e-fluids technology is based on gas-to-liquids technology, for which obviously the starting material is natural gas — it’s still a fossil fuel but it’s the cleanest-burning fossil fuel,” says Gunel.
We’re speaking to Gunsel at the Shell Technology Centre in Hamburg following a tour and introduction to the company’s e-fluids, e-lubricants, and e-grease businesses.
While most people are familiar with the regular oil changes that ICE cars need to go through, the idea of greases, fluids, and lubricants might seem anathema to clean and green electric cars.
However, electric cars still need to be lubricated and cooled — but in different ways than ICE cars.
“We are mainly working directly with OEMs,” explains Gunsel, “because it’s not necessarily a consumer product.
“e-Fluids are going into transmissions which are sealed, it’s a first-fill opportunity. And so, the interaction with the OEM is much more critical for us and OEMs are very aware that they need specialised fluids for their e-transmissions. There are many different designs, so one e-fluid doesn’t work with all transmissions.”
Gunsel explains that there are a variety of uses of Shell’s e-fluids, e-greases, and e-lubricants ranging from lubricating and cooling transmissions to bearings, and even cooling batteries.
Of course, this means that the EVs driving around the world are still reliant on fossil fuel-based materials.
“The next steps are starting with fluids that are recycled. For example, base oils that we can obtain from used lubricants, used transmission fluids — they’re still hydrocarbons but there’s a circular economy, sustainable benefit.
“In other areas, we are working on bio-based materials. Again, bio-based materials have very low carbon footprints and they are not obtained from fossil fuels. In those cases, we make sure that we do not compete with crops that are used for food.
The company is also working on entirely synthetic fluids but, while OEMs are showing interest in all three products, it will take a while for completely renewable solutions to take over.
“We are producing e-fluids both here in Germany at our manufacturing plant, as well as in Houston,” says Gunsel.
Gunsel, who was born in Turkey but has relocated to Houston, is incredibly upfront about the company’s solutions and its sustainability shortcomings.
“In our manufacturing capabilities and in our supply chain, we’ve moved as much as possible to renewable power — wind and solar. It’s not 100% but that’s our goal.
“We are looking at reducing our scope one and scope two emissions, which we can control in our manufacturing processes. But, of course, the biggest challenge is scope three, which is coming from the use of our products.
“But, one good realisation is that, unlike fuels, lubricants and transmission fluids do not burn. So, they do not have scope three emissions.”
Of course, it’s not entirely perfect. While fluids and lubricants do not re-enter the atmosphere by being burnt off, there is no easy answer for what happens when a car reaches its end of life.
“Is it possible to recycle batteries? Is it possible to drain the fluids and re-use them? I don’t think there is a current solution to this, but it is recognised as a problem.
“When it comes to our chemicals business, for example, we are doing a lot of work on using waste chemicals and using technologies such as pyrolysis to turn them into liquid hydrocarbons again and there’s a benefit associated with that circular economy.”
Making Business Sense
Perhaps the most important change for Shell is not that its e-fluids, e-greases, and e-lubricants are helping to keep the wheels of electric cars, rather than petrol cars turning. The most important thing might be the change in the business model that the transition to electric cars facilitates.
“With increased EV usage,” says Gunsel, “we will have a lot less need for passenger car engine oils, it’s clear.
“That is why we are focusing on new applications, new sectors. We talked about e-fluids in transmissions and similarly e-greases. For batteries, we have developed a novel immersion cooling technology that allows you to more effectively cool and manage the thermal system of the battery.”
For what it’s worth, Gunsel is quick to stress that while the battery immersion fluid is hydrocarbon-based, it comes with no greater risk of catching fire.
“It was one of the first risks we identified after working with immersive battery cooling technologies. However, the industry has developed a lot of stress tests to test the performance limits of these fluids. In fact, in our labs here, we have a facility dedicated to doing these fire resistance tests. And, again, our fluids are very safe and we’ve tried them under many different conditions.”
Aside from cooling electric car batteries and lubricating their transmissions, there might be other, even more, left-field uses for the e-fluids.
“We are now looking at other, new sectors,” says Gunsel.
“The idea of immersion cooling is now applicable to data centres — and this obviously has nothing to do with automotive applications. But data centres are becoming very big and they are generating quite a lot of heat and they are currently being air-cooled, which is not very efficient.
“We found that our e-fluids have actually worked really well as coolants for data centres and, with the advance of crypto mining, there is a need for effective cooling.
“In the lubricants business, we are really focusing on new sectors such as wind power,” she continues.
“Wind power is obviously critical for renewable energy and our future. But, when you look at wind turbines, there are still a lot of rotating parts and gearboxes, which are very difficult to maintain and operate. So, we are developing advanced fluids for wind turbine applications.
“We are slowly shifting our business towards more sustainable applications but that still require good products for durability, efficiency, and CO2 reduction.”