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How Synthetic Oil Is Made

Shell Pearl Oil GTL refinery

Choose a synthetic oil and your engine will enjoy multiple benefits, including improved viscosity performance under extreme temperatures, resistance to oxidation and thermal breakdown, as well as avoiding some oil sludge issues. That said, how is synthetic oil made? Let’s examine the process and help you determine the right oil for your car.

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Some of the first API rated synthetic motor oils for internal combustion engines were introduced in 1970s. Since then, most major oil manufacturers have jumped in with their own synthetics. Today, consumers have their choice of conventional, synthetic-blend, and synthetic motor oils, although not all oils are the same.

How Synthetic Oil Is Made

Synthetic oil is made in the lab, thus each manufacturer takes different approaches. No manufacturer is about to share proprietary information about the process, but we can deduce certain facts about development without sounding like a chemistry professor in the process.

Full synthetic, or 100 percent synthetic oils, are usually extracted from crude oil or a byproduct of the same. In the case of Pennzoil, they have figured out how extract synthetic oil from natural gas.


Just like conventional oil, synthetics are refined. From there, the differences become apparent as synthetic motor oil is distilled and purified, before it is reduced to its basic molecules. The process extracts more impurities than what is found in conventional oils while enabling individual molecules to be customized to work with today’s sophisticated machinery. Synthetic oil has gone through additional chemically engineered processes, so the molecules are more uniform in shape with fewer impurities. One could make the analogy that conventional oil is like rocks (varying molecules with many impurities) and synthetic oil is like marbles (uniform molecules with few impurities). In general, synthetic oil has better high and low temperature performance, and synthetic motor oils are usually formulated with higher performing additives. There is still a performance difference amongst different synthetics. For example, synthetic oil that is made from natural gas, via a gas-to-liquids (GTL) process, has even better high temperature oxidation stability and lower volatility, which is critical for both low viscosity and high performance motor oils.  

Motor Oil for Your Car

What’s the best motor oil for your car? That answer is straightforward. Choose a full synthetic motor oil that meets the viscosity grade and engine oil specification listed in your vehicle owner’s manual. Synthetics provide better protection, and 7 in 10 new cars are factory filled with synthetic motor oil, as of 2016.

Although your manufacturer may not specifically recommend synthetic oil, keep in mind that synthetic motor oil provides the best performance at both cold and hot temperatures. This is especially important for modern fuel economic engines as well as high performance engines with turbochargers and/or direct injection.  For example, because Pennzoil Synthetics are made from natural gas instead of crude oil, they have better high temperature performance and provide complete engine protection for both modern fuel economic engines and high performance engines. 

Making the Switch

Ultimately, synthetic motor oil may help extend the life of your car by keeping your engine working. That’s one important reason owners make the switch to synthetic motor oil.

Check out all the chemical products available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how synthetic oil is made, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Shell Oil Company.

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