What is Synthetic Oil?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Synthetic oil is a product that contains additional chemical ingredients that are not present in crude oil. These additional ingredients are synthesized or created artificially and added to petroleum as a means of meeting specific needs for lubrication. Synthetic products are used for everything from lubricating large machinery at production plants to use in the engine of the family car.

Using synthetic oil in your car can help on an engine's wear.
Using synthetic oil in your car can help on an engine's wear.

The creation of synthetic oil can be traced back to the first half of the 20th century. Germany made great use of these products during World War II, since the nation had very limited resources in terms of crude oil. It was used to maintain motors in factories, keep ground vehicles operational, and even for use as heating oil in some cases.

Many car owners now use synthetic oil in their vehicles.
Many car owners now use synthetic oil in their vehicles.

By the 1960s, oil corporations in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and South Africa all developed artificial oil products for use in industry settings as well as for consumers. Today, these products are routinely used in many different settings, especially with the automobile industry.

There are a number of advantages associated with the creation of synthetic oil products. First, the addition of artificial ingredients helps to ease the burden on dwindling crude oil reserves, making it possible to use natural oil more efficiently. Synthetic products often minimize oil sludge issues in automobiles and machine engines, which is a benefit for cars and other motor driven machinery that are older. The viscosity performance of synthetics compares favorably with natural oil products and in some cases may be preferable. For example, a car engine that has over 100,000 miles (160,934 km) on it will likely encounter less wear and tear by making use of synthetic oil.

Another major benefit of synthetic products is a more efficient performance when an engine or motor is started in cold weather. This means that the oil begins to lubricate all the working parts more quickly than crude oil products. This means less of a chance of gumming and unnecessary wear on the individual components of the engine.

While synthetic oil was originally developed as a way to deal with a shortage of crude oil products, the artificial oils of today are often used due to the better performance. During periods when the price of crude oil rises significantly, synthetic products may also be a less expensive lubricant option.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


Read any article or look up synthetic motor oil, and you will find vague references to exactly what synthetic oils are. I could be wrong, but oil having as low as 26 percent synthetic oil can be called synthetic.

As far as oil flow properties go, you see 0w-30 or 5W-40 touted as an advantage because it flows better at start-up. In order to produce an oil with a bottom number less than 10, the oil has to be diluted with a solvent type fluid to achieve low flow ratings. So you are giving up lubricity when you go below 10wt. Besides the oil additive package (TBN)is what keeps the engine from tearing itself up.

0 and 5 weight oils are used to get low emissions but are not an indicator of good lubrication.


I understand that Germany used coal to make synthetic oil during World War II. The U.S. has an abundance of coal, so why aren't we making more use of it? Or is this another possibility that the EPA has killed?


I heard about a project at University of Maryland that made synthetic oil from canola crops that outperformed conventional oil in both price and engine performance. The debate on synthetic oil vs regular oil has been raging for at least thirty years and it mostly comes down to cost versus performance.

The promise of organic synthetic oils might make it so synthetic fuels finally win the debate. Growing the lubricants for our cars will also be much less environmentally damaging than drilling for petroleum and risking oil disasters.


Is synthetic motor oil better than conventional motor oil? What types of things are synthesized to make synthetic oils? Are they made from organic materials? Would it be possible to make synthetic motor oil from biomass or another organic source? Motor oil must amount to a large portion of the fossil fuels used since every vehicle needs some lubricant to run. I would be curious to know if there are alternatives planned for the future when oil becomes cost-prohibitive.

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