Surface mining Sustainability Innovation and technology

A critical step toward more environmentally conscious surface mining

5 min read / April 9, 2024 / Diane Bacha

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Environmentally acceptable lubricants offer the opportunity for real impact

The transition from petroleum-based lubricants to options that are more friendly to the environment has been inching forward, driven in part by regulations and in part by burgeoning interest in environmental practices.

Lubrication companies have already developed environmentally acceptable lubricants, or EALs, for the maritime industry in response to a growing number of efforts across the globe to minimize the industry’s impact on marine life and water sources. In the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires EALs for large vessels operating in the Great Lakes and near coastal areas. Regulations also exist for lubricants used in food processing and for equipment operating in environmentally sensitive areas, among others.

In the mining industry, there are fewer regulations dictating the use of specific types of lubricants. Some effluent guidelines exist in Canada and the State of Montana requires biodegradable lubricants and solvents in some mining conditions, for instance. But overall, surface mining operations are largely unregulated in this area.

This creates an opportunity for the mining industry itself to proactively identify lubricant options that may be more friendly to the environment.

Understanding the role of lubricants

Lubricants are designed to minimize friction and provide shock load protection for machines used in countless different industries and settings. Formulated specifically for distinct uses and conditions, they are essential for optimizing machine life, performance and reliability. In surface mining, extreme conditions and high loads create unique challenges when formulating open gear lubricant (OGLs) and multipurpose grease for the optimal performance of shovels, draglines, haul trucks and drills.

When used properly, greases and lubricants can also help drive fuel efficiency. Because most lubricants are petroleum-based, they can pose environmental issues:

  • Toxicity. Petroleum-based lubricants and their chemical additives can be toxic to plants, animals and humans
  • Bioaccumulation. Over time, these substances can build up in an environment, leading to potentially dangerous accumulations in soil, water, food chains and in the tissues of organisms. Bioaccumulation poses risks to plant, animal and human life
  • Energy-intensive. The production of petroleum-based lubricants requires significant energy
  • Non-renewable. Petroleum is a finite resource that cannot be replaced once depleted

Even when managed responsibly, some lubrication loss — in simpler terms, leakage — is possible. And because open gear lubricants are, by design, exposed to the environment, a proportion could be shed from the machine and onto the ground. Unintended spills, line breakages and fitting failures can also trigger costly remediation efforts and time-consuming reporting protocols.

What makes a lubricant environmentally acceptable?

The terminology around lubricants that offer “greener” or “environmentally friendly” alternatives to petroleum-based options can be confusing. So, Komatsu prefers using the term “environmentally acceptable” lubricants as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use in large vessels. According to those criteria, commonly referred to as the Vessel General Permit (VGP), “environmentally acceptable” lubricants must be:

  • Non-toxic. Won’t harm plant, animal, and human life
  • Non-bio accumulative. Won’t accumulate in the bodies of organisms exposed to them, and in the environment
  • Biodegradable. Can be broken down in the environment by micro-organisms
  • Renewable. Derived from renewable resources, such as plant-based oils

The European Union has also established the “EU Ecolabel” for lubricants, with much of the same criteria as well as standards around sustainable packaging and sourcing.

The opportunity — and challenge — for the mining industry

Given the volume of open gear lubricants used in surface mining operations, converting to environmentally acceptable alternatives creates the opportunity for considerable positive impact — especially in an era when the mining industry is driving toward more environmentally conscious practices.

It is widely acknowledged that there is growing public demand for alternatives to petroleum-based products. The market for “bio-based,” or more biodegradable, lubricants is projected to grow based on demand in the automotive, construction and marine industries. But the move toward non-petroleum-based lubricants for surface mining faces some hurdles.

Without specific regulations that require them for surface mining, the demand for environmentally acceptable lubricants is still relatively low. To develop them, suppliers need financial support and technical resources for testing and validation. Further, the cost of development is high, which means the new lubricants will cost more than traditional lubricants, especially at the outset.

Making a difference together

Despite those challenges, the potential to make an impact — and to be prepared for potential regulations — is compelling some mining industry stakeholders to explore possibilities.

Since 2016, Komatsu's Surface Mining business has been actively exploring potential alternatives to petroleum-based lubricants that will work effectively with its equipment. “We understand the responsibility we have to create a more environmentally sensitive approach to mining, and we have a long history of anticipating the industry’s needs through innovative solutions,” said John Koetz, President of Surface Mining at Komatsu Mining Corp. “So, it only made sense to explore potential ways to reduce the environmental impact of lubricants commonly used on our equipment.”

Komatsu approached vendors about teaming with them on the project, ultimately identifying six different global lubrication companies. They embarked on a journey to develop environmentally acceptable open gear lubricants and multipurpose grease for surface mining machines. The new lubricants would need to meet both Komatsu’s exacting mechanical/performance requirements for mining equipment and the strict standards set by the VGP.

After five years, two products that meet those standards are now ready for field trials, and Komatsu is actively seeking partners to participate in the trials. Once field-test partners are identified, Komatsu will work side by side with them on technical consultation and trial protocols.

“We are looking for partners who share our desire to be pro-active on this issue and who want to be prepared when regulations start being imposed,” said Regan Lundgren, Director of Aftermarket Marketing at Komatsu. “But beyond that, this project demonstrates how seriously we and our partners take our commitment to the environment. Finding a lubricant that is more friendly to the environment and performs just as well as — if not better than — those lubricants currently being used on our equipment is a challenge we have taken on because we feel it will have a long-lasting impact on people, the business and the planet.”