Today's highly sophisticated engines are overriding one of the longest standing paradigms of automotive design by offering increased power along with increased fuel efficiency. Pumping out as much as 100 hp per one liter of displacement at more than 20 miles per gallon, these technical marvels rely on precise tuning to continually operate at their best.
Of course nothing is free-and this increase in performance is no exception as vehicle prices move ever upward, and repair costs follow suit. Many automotive enthusiasts are asking what they can do to get the most value and performance out of their investment. A switch to synthetic motor oil is a worthy consideration in the quest to maximize the performance and life expectancy of a car's capable powerplant.
The Aging Standard
Conventional motor oil has been the benchmark in engine lubrication since Carl Benz invented the car in the late 1800s. Over the years, oil manufacturers have improved the refining processes to remove impurities. Still, mineral-based oil, even in its most pure form, remains somewhat imperfect.
This liquid lubricant performs two primary functions inside your engine. It reduces friction between moving parts, and it dissipates heat created by the combustion process. At normal operating temperatures, conventional oil protects the internal workings of your engine. This ability to protect as well, however, when engine temperatures rise or fall below the norm (as you would find upon start up, during spirited driving or in extreme climates) is limited because at lower temperatures conventional oil becomes thick, or more viscous. In this state it may have difficulty reaching critical components. At higher temperatures, the same oil often becomes too thin to adequately coat and effectively protect moving parts.
Synthetic oil, on the other hand, has a higher tolerance for temperature extremes, thereby maintaining a more consistent viscosity. This means your engine is better protected overall regardless of engine operating temperatures.
Size Does Matter
Synthetic oil is also more resistant to thermal and oxidative breakdown, processes that occur when oil is exposed to the severe conditions inside an engine. When motor oil begins to break down, it is essentially burned away, which causes it to lose its ability to protect valuable engine parts and dissipate heat.
The reason for synthetic oil's increased resilience stems from its uniform molecular structure. Conventional base oil is composed of several sizes and shapes of hydrocarbon molecules. This variation brings with it a range of evaporation, oxygenation, and burn points. Included in the mixture are some comparatively unstable molecules, some of which break down very soon after the conventional oil is poured into your car. This forces the remaining oil to work harder.
To overcome the problem of thermal and oxidative breakdown, synthetic base oils are created through a series of chemical synthesis. The starting materials may be a mixture of relatively pure small molecules. In this case the small molecules are combined to make new, larger molecules. Alternatively the starting material may be a broad mixture of larger molecules. In this case the large molecules are broken down and rearranged. The result is motor oil that is composed solely of pre-selected similarly sized molecules devoid of any weak links that inhibit performance. The new molecules are specifically shaped to offer optimum lubrication and maximum resistance to thermal breakdown.
In addition to reducing friction and dissipating heat, motor oil also captures and removes contaminants, prevents sludge and cleans away potentially damaging deposits and varnish. Oil additives in both synthetic and conventional oils, accounting for approximately 15 percent of the final solution, work to perform these tasks inside your engine.
When compared with conventional oil, synthetics offer increased performance in these areas. The reasons here are twofold: First, synthetic oil is virtually free from contaminants as opposed to refined mineral oil, which may include contaminants such as sulphur. Synthetic oils also generally include higher quality additives for improved performance and greater resistance to consumption versus their conventional oil alternatives.
In order to ensure optimum performance in some of today's highly advanced engines, some automakers have begun recommending, and even requiring, synthetic oils in their cars. Mercedes and BMW are just a couple of the nameplates that recognize the incredible benefits of using this premium lubricant. It's likely that, in time, all auto manufacturers will require that synthetic oil be used for regular maintenance of their vehicles.