New SP Motor Oil Standard Coming in May to Eke out More Engine Efficiency

Friction is the enemy of efficiency. At least that’s the case in internal combustion engines. That’s why oil is such an important ingredient to the longevity of an engine’s life, as well as its performance during that life. It’s the lubricant that reduces wear and friction in critical areas, allowing the engine to even run in the first place, let alone last several hundred thousand miles of use. The American Petroleum Institute, or API, sets standards for oil and, every so often, adjusts those standards to meet the needs of modern engines. And starting May 1, API will implement a new one.

In fact, it’s not just the API, but also the International Lubricant Specification Advisory Committee, or ILSAC, that has new standards for oil that meet more stringent needs from auto manufacturers to keep up with ever increasing efficiency demands. In fact, let’s keep a counter of how many times the world “efficiency” is used in the story. Currently three.

The main purpose of this latest round of updates is to allow modern engines, which have direct injection, turbocharging and higher cylinder pressures than before, to use lower-viscosity oils and still resist wear. Viscosity is the amount of internal friction in a fluid. In other words, the more viscous oil is, the harder it is to move through an engine. Molasses has high viscosity, water has low. And using low viscosity oil improves an engine’s efficiency (four).

To that end, modern engines more often use lower viscosity oils to meet efficiency needs, including 5W-20, 0W-20 and even 0W-16. Working with the auto industry, oil marketers, additive companies and others, ILSAC and API developed new standards known as ILSAC GF-6A, ILSAC GF-6B and API SP. They will replace ILSAC GF-5 and API SN standards starting May 1. And all the new oils are backward compatible and can replace GF-5 and older oils, including viscosities as low as 0W-20 weighted. GF-6B oils replace 0W-16 oils. API SP replaces all API SN.

API introduced the last standard, SN, in 2010. API skipped “SO” because it’s an acronym for Standard Oil, which is still sold in Canada. Its main goals for the SN era were to better protect turbocharged engines, operating with E-85 ethanol gasoline, and, yes, improve fuel economy. And how do you improve fuel economy with oil, you ask? With improved efficiency (five), of course. As you can see, the main purpose today is similar, but perhaps a bit more focused.

For this 2020 standard, the API developed seven new tests to see how engines performed. This includes a timing chain wear test and fuel economy improvement test when using very low viscosity oils, among other tests. Going low viscosity while maintaining engine protection is what will allow automakers to eke out more efficiency (six) in their engines and continue to reduce the carbon footprint of the industry as a whole.

And that’s good because it remains true that, despite the boom in electric vehicles, internal combustion engines will be here awhile. Additionally, companies like Hyundai with CVVD and Koenigsegg with Freevalve continue to prove that lots of engine gains are still out there to harness. Fundamentally, gasoline continues to have no peers when it comes to energy density. A good illustration of that comes from Engineering Explained and a whole lot of LaCroix. I’d say watching it is an efficient (seven!) way to get the information.

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