The future's electric
Electric drives are becoming increasingly common on our roads and could, over the medium to long term, consign combustion engines to the history books. For lubricant manufacturers, this will mean a decline in the sales of engine oils. But it will also open up a whole new range of exciting challenges and market potential – and FUCHS is perfectly poised to capitalize on this.
In 2016, the number of electric cars on the world’s roads exceeded the two-million mark – and during the course of 2017 this number is likely to have increased by more than a million. These figures – which include not only purely battery-powered vehicles but also plug-in hybrids – show just how dynamic the market for electric cars has become. But as a proportion of the overall market, these figures are still very low – after all, around 100 million motor vehicles are produced every year. In some countries, however, electric cars do already enjoy a tangible market share – especially in Norway, where around 30 % of cars are electric. For the automotive sector and associated industries, this development entails far-reaching changes – including for lubricant manufacturers. “Together with the automotive industry, we have to face new challenges and new questions,” says the Head of Global Product Management Automotive at FUCHS.
One could assume that the expected decline in the number of combustion engines on the roads would be a cause for concern for the lubricants industry. After all, engine oil – the most widespread and highest-volume automotive lubricant – is not used in an electric motor. In fact, however, electromobility offers real potential – for FUCHS at least. Chief Technical Officer Dr. Lutz Lindemann: “With electric drives comes a whole host of new requirements that will cause us to define new generations of lubricants.”
New materials, higher speeds, electromagnetic fields
In response to this major, shared challenge, FUCHS is actively approaching its partners in the automotive industry and, through presentations at expert forums among other things, making it clear that the trend toward electric vehicle drives places numerous requirements on lubricants – these requirements will change the production process at first. Electric cars require new materials and production methods, in turn requiring new processing fluids. And then there’s the powertrain: Electric cars, too, have transmission systems and, in many cases, clutches, although these operate at much higher speeds and with much higher efficiency requirements.
Another important area are the lubricating greases. Cars today contain around two-and-a-half kilograms of lubricating grease, applied in many different areas including in the engine, ancillary components and central locking system. In at least some of these areas, the conditions in electric cars are much harsher. The greases have to be able to withstand higher temperatures and much higher rotational speeds. Additionally, they come into contact with a wide range of materials – from copper cables to special plastics – as well as with electronic modules and sensors, electrical currents and electromagnetic fields.
New additives, new measurement processes
It is precisely these electrical requirements that the FUCHS development team has been focusing on for some time now. “We had to come up with whole new ways of influencing – to a greater or lesser extent – the electrical properties of lubricants,” says the head of predevelopment. Potential solutions include brand-new additives and appropriate measurement processes: “We already use rheological and tribological measurement methods in electrically charged environments in our laboratory.” That said, FUCHS is well positioned because it already has a wealth of vital experience in the development of numerous detailed electrical solutions for cars: “Even cars equipped with combustion engines contain dozens of electric motors performing a wide range of tasks,” says the divisional head. “The task now is ‘only’ to electrify the primary power train, although that is a bigger challenge than you might think.”
Concerning this particular challenge, the industry is still very much in its early stages. “The layperson might think: ‘Vacuum cleaners with electric motors have been around for a century now, so what’s the problem?’” says the head of predevelopment. But the requirements are not remotely comparable: “Cars are much more dynamic in their operation.” And he mentions another important aspect – energy efficiency: “In electric cars, reducing friction through the use of lubricants is fundamentally even more important than in cars with combustion engines. While the top development priority right now for combustion-engine cars is to cut CO2 emissions, for electric cars it is to achieve ever-greater ranges. And achieving both of these goals also ultimately involves reducing friction.”
On top of this are high expectations regarding performance, weight and, above all, cost. “A wide range of different approaches to develop partial or fully electric powertrains is currently being explored. Regardless of which approach wins out, they all have areas that urgently require optimization,” says the expert from FUCHS. “This is why nobody yet knows which concept will perhaps become the established standard in 20 years.”
Multi-functional e-engine oils
This period of transition is also a good time to explore new approaches. One of these is the idea of integrating the different components of an electric powertrain – power electronics, electric motor and transmission – in an enclosure that is as compact as possible to save weight and costs. It was with this objective in mind that the EU joint research project “Optimized electric Drivetrain by Integration” (ODIN) was launched in 2014 in collaboration with consortium partners such as Renault and Bosch. FUCHS contributed the idea of developing a suitable “e-engine oil” for a combined lubricant and cooling circuit – in other words, a cooling / functional liquid that simultaneously allows almost frictionless rotation of the transmission, transports the waste heat away from the electronics and the motor and can be pumped through the lines with as little energy expenditure as possible. “We developed a range of possible formulations and successfully created viable e-engine oils,” says the head of predevelopment. The overall project thus achieved its aim: “We presented an exciting, almost fully developed alternative concept for an electric drive. We now have to wait and see whether and for what purpose carmakers will adopt it.”
The optimum degree of integration, however, is just one of many concept-related questions to which there are still no sound answers: Is electricity the best and most sustainable energy source for cars, or are renewable fuels likely to constitute serious competition? Which of the numerous electric motor design principles is the most effective? Which speed range is the best? Is a transmission with a fixed gear ratio sufficient, or is gearshift capability a better idea?
For lubricant manufacturers, one virtue is most important: smoothness of running. And as the world’s largest independent lubricant specialist with an extremely broad portfolio and almost unparalleled experience, FUCHS has exactly what it takes to respond flexibly to these future challenges. Or, as the automotive product manager puts it: “It is part of our culture here at FUCHS to respond rapidly to new requirements. The trend toward electromobility is a fantastic opportunity for us to break new ground and remain at the cutting edge of technological development.”
Interview with Dr. Lutz Lindemann, CTO of the FUCHS Group:
» We have set up teams in Germany, China and the USA who focus on e-mobility, analyze customer requirements and convert these to suitable products. «
Dr. Lindemann, since the diesel scandal, more and more people are predicting the demise of the combustion engine. What does this mean for FUCHS?
First, there’s no need to be alarmist. It is indeed true that more and more cars, particularly in urban environments, will be equipped with electric motors. The conventional, combustion-powered drive- train is still going to be with us for some time, however, in the form of hybrid drives, for example. Quantitative forecasts are difficult because there are too many unknowns, but it does seem conceivable to us that, by 2030, the global market share of electric cars could be as high as around 30 %, with a significant proportion of this figure comprising hybrids as a form of transitional technology.
This, too, will see shifts in the market.
As far as the global market for lubricants is concerned, we are indeed expecting to see a marginal decrease in the overall volume. But why only marginal? There are a number of reasons for this: The only liquid that is not required in all-electric cars is the engine oil – all-electric cars still have transmission systems, regardless of contradictory rumors. But, as I said, the demand for engine oil will fall only gradually. And what makes electric cars so exciting is the fact that they will result in a whole new demand for lubricants.
How can FUCHS leverage this potential?
Our comprehensive product range and our experience in developing just the right solutions quickly and flexibly mean that we are perfectly poised to capitalize on this. Our development team has spent a long time expanding our arsenal of solutions aimed at meeting whole new requirements. And we have set up teams in the technology-driven markets of Germany, China and the USA who focus on e-mobility, analyze customer requirements and convert these to suitable products.