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Discoloration in Lube oil

Color can be used as an indicator of oil health, and in many cases it is

a reliable field indicator. However, color alone cannot tell the whole
story of the oils condition. For a complete understanding of oil
condition, it is important to use an appropriate test slate.

A change in oil color signifies a change in the chemistry of the oil or

the presence of contaminants. For example, oil oxidation, mixing two
dissimilar types of oil, and carbon insolubles from thermal failure can
all darken oil. There is also a possibility that the oil darkening is due to
a photochemical reaction from sunlight exposure.

Measuring color is based on a visual comparison of the amount of light

transmitted through a defined depth of oil. This can be done with a
predefined test method and instrumentation or a subjective view of
the oil with reference to a color gauge. In either case, there may be a
number of variables to monitor for quality results.

The ASTM D1500-07 test method can be used to compare the color of
an oil sample to a glass slide. This test is used in lubricant
manufacturing for quality-control purposes. It is performed using a
standard light source to match a sample to a glass slide. Values for the
glass range from 0.5 to 8.0 in 0.5 increments. If the sample falls
between two colors, the higher number is reported. If no color gauge
is available, the oil color is compared to a previous sample or a new oil


Maintaining proper oil quality is essential for satisfactory operation and

longevity of oil film bearings. Oil discoloration is a sign of potentially
harmful contamination or degradation. There are three main causes of
oil discoloration in oil film bearings: particulate contamination (external
and internal), liquid contamination, and oxidation.

Each cause has some unique characteristics, but discoloration is often a

combination of the three. This article discusses each cause of
discoloration, and makes recommendations on proper oil type and oil


Oil oxidation is one last source of oil discoloration. Oil oxidation is a

process of chemical degradation that naturally occurs in oil over time
when it is exposed to air. Some of its by-products are sludge, varnish,
and acid, which cause the oil to thicken and darken. Higher
temperatures (above 160 F for mineral oils) accelerate oxidation, as well
as other contaminates such as water, iron, and copper. Synthetic oils
are available which have better oxidation resistance than conventional
oils and can be considered to extend oil change intervals.

Light Exposure

Extended exposure to sunlight can cause oil to suffer accelerated

oxidation and may lead to shortened drain intervals. On a molecular
level, the long chain lubricant hydrocarbon reacts with oxygen in the
presence of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. As a result, it
forms chromophores - conjugated aldehydes, ketones and esters.
These absorb visible light to appear yellow at low concentrations and
brown at higher concentrations after extended exposure to sunlight. To
avoid this situation, one should protect the exposed oil from the
ultraviolet energy in direct sunlight.

Viscosity @ Oxidation Induction Rotating Pressure

Acid Number
Product 40C cSt Time by PDSC Minutes Vessel Oxidation
ASTM D445 190C ASTM D6186 Minutes ASTM D2272
A - new 0.07 30.19 19 1,707
A - aged 0.11 30.21 11 916
A - aged (glass) --- 30.18 --- ---
B - new 0.04 29.81 10 367
B - aged 0.07 28.88 13* 409
C - new 0.07 30.18 22 1,840
C - aged 0.11 30.27 22 1,530
Hydraulic new 0.1 43.78 17 566
Hydraulic aged 0.13 43.94 17 474
Table 1
A = Group II turbine oil with R&O additive package
B = Hydrotreated (Group I) with R&O additive package
C = Carefully selected base oil (as worded on product description) with R&O package
D = Highly refined base stock (as worded on product description) with antiwear package
* Considered to be within the reproducibility of the test method

The ultraviolet portion of the sunlight spectrum has shorter and higher
energy wavelengths than visible or infrared portions. Upon direct
exposure, UV rays can break chemical bonds and damage skin,
plastics and mineral oil-based lubricants. The ozone layer in the
stratosphere absorbs 99 percent of the UV rays coming from the sun.
The remaining one percent can cause damage unless UV stabilizers are
added to skin creams and plastics or the exposed object is shaded.

Some plastics are inherently stable to UV rays, such as the butyrate

reservoirs in various gravity feed lubricators and polyethylene
terephthalate (PET) sample bottles, however they do allow UV
radiation to pass through, causing damage to the contained
hydrocarbon fluid.

A simulation of reported dark turbine oils in outdoor gravity feed

reservoirs was performed by placing various turbine oils, including a
synthetic, in PET bottles in outdoor sunlight for five days. The increase
in color can be seen in Figures 1 through 5. Turbine oil A was also
exposed to sunlight in a glass bottle. The change in viscosity and color
were essentially the same between glass and plastic.

Oxidation Test Methods

Degradation is observed by small increases in acid number, viscosity
and in some cases, a substantial decrease in oxidation resistance
through the use of Pressurized Differential Scanning Calorimetry
(PDSC) and Rotary Pressure Vessel Oxidation Test (PRVOT). With
PDSC, the sample is subjected to 500 PSI of oxygen and isothermally
heated.1 As the onset of oxidation occurs, there is a phase change in
the base oil that is characterized by an exothermic reaction,
considered to be the onset of oxidation time. With RPVOT, the sample
is subjected to 90 PSI pure oxygen purge in a pressure vessel
containing a copper coil and moisture catalyst, and heated to 150C.

The point at which pressure stabilizes after reaching 150C marks the
initiation of test timeline. Oxygen pressure in the vessel decreases
with the onset of oxidation. The test concludes once the pressure
drops by 25 PSI. The test duration is noted in minutes.2

These same samples did not show any color change when exposed to
indoor fluorescent light or sunlight coming through a UV-protected
glass window.

Ultraviolet light can damage lubricants in a short period of time. The
first sign of damage in this study was the oxidation resistance of the
oil. This may seem all right if the system is a once-through drip
lubricant where there is no need for high levels of oxidation stability.
However, if the oil feed system is used as a constant leveler for a
small reservoir, one may be adding bad oil to good oil!