In the real world, change happens slowly. A nation, or a neighborhood, isn’t knee deep in fossil-fuel wastes one day and “green” the next. This gradual transition is something that Allen Barbieri, CEO of Irvine, California-based Biosynthetic Technologies LLC, understands very well.

Biosynthetic Technologies is one of a small but growing number of energy companies looking for ways to improve the environment without turning the current energy paradigm on its head and forcing the Western world back into the Neanderthal era.

For Barbieri, this means a synthetic lubricant that not only meets or exceeds today’s premium oils – scoring 8.5 on Piston Deposit ratings – but offers a non-petroleum-based fluid that is 76-percent biodegradable in 28 days as compared to popular motor oils, which require 40 days and leave traces in the environment for years.

The oil was originally a U.S. Department of Agriculture project. The USDA took the development as far as it could, then patented it six ways from Sunday and – via the development and technology transfer entity CaliforniaLifeScience.com – transferred it to Biosynthetic Technologies, which added another 50 patents to insure its business platform.

The oil is 100-percent natural, converting the fatty acids from plant feedstocks into an ecologically sound product that will mitigate some of the damage caused by car owners who change their own motor oil and dump the old stuff down storm drains.

Equally as important, the synthetic oil blends very well with petroleum-based products.  However, as Barbieri also points out, there is a distinction between “environmentally safe” and “environmentally friendly”. The former implies no harm; the latter acknowledges the (ongoing) presence of small amounts of petroleum-based oil as well as additives to reduce friction, corrosion and foaming.

The one downside (from an environmentalist’s point of view at least) might be the company’s alliance with such names as BP Oil and Monsanto – whom Barbieri jokingly refers to as “the two most hated companies in the world.”

“At one point, I thought of adding Halliburton to the mix,” he added, laughing. “So that I could call it the Axis of Evil!”

Instead of focusing on potential downsides, however, Barbieri notes that the affiliation may signal even greater efforts on the part of these two multinationals, one vested in energy, the other in agriculture, to brighten up their tarnished images and join the race to the green. According to Barbieri, these efforts have resulted in BP putting a lot more energy and money (that other “green”) into environmental ventures than some other equally large, international oil companies.

Moreover, the alliance enables Biosynthetic to tap into highly developed company marketing, sales, and distribution networks, which means that this very eco-friendly oil will reach consumers under recognizable, branded names much sooner than otherwise – a B to B relationship far superior to B to C marketing, which – as Barbieri points out:

“If I tried to do it on my own, it would be my label on the motor oil container, and when you have an expensive car, you are much less likely to put in Biosynthetic Technology oil – a company you have never heard of – than you are to use Mobil Oil, for example.”

BP is not the only energy company to invest in Biosynthetic Technologies. In fact, the move toward more earth-friendly motor oils has prompted energy companies as diverse as Exxon Mobil, Phillips 66 to venture into the biotech arena searching for a lubricant base that will allow them to attach an environmentally friendly label to their products.

For some, the dilution with biosynthetic oil will be as small as 30 percent (or less), which offers environmental bragging rights with little need for recalibrating or retooling factory settings and even less reason to worry that biotech motor oil might not stand up as well as advertised in today’s pricey, high-performance engines.

Other oil and gas companies will make the effort, however, and ratios potentially as high as 85 percent bio and 15 percent fossil fuel will not only allow them to fly the green flag but to feel sincere doing so.

And the oils themselves? Branded Lubrigreen, these high-oleic soybean oils are industry-transformative. Another product, Cocoestolide, containing 35 percent Biosynthetic base oil and applicable in the personal care and cosmetics marketplace, is further down the pipeline but shows just as much promise, given the $36.5 billion in revenues in 2010 in the U.S. alone. The motor oil industry represents approximately $296 million per year (in 2013 figures).

The feedstock is Vistive Gold soybeans, a Monsanto product. Vistive Gold uses RNA interference, and it is Roundup Ready (aka glyphosate-resistant). This herbicide has been charged with spurring the development of “superweeds”, though experts speculate that Roundup overuse is the root of the epidemic. In other words, as farmers discovered Roundups ease-of-use, they made a typical mistake:  if a little was good – more was better.

The RNAi technique, a relatively new way to genetically engineer plants, troubles bioscientists because it has not been around long enough to evaluate.

Why biotech? From a performance standpoint, notes Barbieri, bio-based oils are in many ways superior to petroleum-based products. From a financial standpoint, the message has finally reached not only American oil companies but American drivers; that petroleum-based motor oils and lubricants are death to the nation’s waterways. For those who delight in factoids, consider this:

  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, approximately 185 million gallons of used motor oil are illegally dumped into storm drains
  •  These disposals, when aggregated, represent fully 40 percent of the oil pollution in America’s streams, rivers and lakes.
  • One gallon of oil can create an eight-acre oil slick. Four quarts of oil can contaminate one million gallons of water, or a year’s supply for 50 thirsty people.
  • As the energy equation stands today, manufacturers need 42 gallons of crude oil to get 2.5 quarts of new motor oil.

It is no wonder that Barbieri expects big demand. According to The Scientist, biotech is in for a wild ride as companies come out of the forced dormancy of the recent recession and offer IPOs right and left. For Biosynthetic Technologies, operating out of its Baton Rouge, LA pilot plant and looking forward to full-scale production in its Jacob’s Engineering-built commercial plant, the future is bright thanks to investors like Monsanto, which is in for $7 million.

I for one will be glad to see the eco-friendly motor oil substitute hit the shelves, hopefully next year. I might even check out the Cocoestolide esters to be incorporated into personal care and cosmetic products. It’s got to be better than fossil fuels!

But food? Maybe not. A lot of us with sensitive tummies still haven’t forgotten Olestra, a cooking oil alternative never approved for use in Canada or the EU and dropped in the U.S. as megafood makers paid attention to complaints and quietly switched back to “real” oils, shelf life and “smoke” temperatures be damned.

 

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