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Tribology and Lubrication Technology February 2017 : Page 46

FEATURE ARTICLE Debbie Sniderman / Contributing Editor Federal Funding: Awarding contracts to lubricant vendors K Y CO KE KEY CONCEPTS NC TS • U.S. federal procurements are are managed b by y the GSA GSA with with additional guid e from guidance fro the the Department De rtment of Agriculture’s lture’s BioPreferred BioPre ed d Program. Prog g ra . • The military milita y is a large la ge consumer consumer and has its own own specifications for for many many y lubricant l ub ca t products. • Government grants f for r R&D provide funding funding for for many man ny private businesses. 46 • FEBRU AR Y 2 017 TRIBOL OG Y & L UBRIC A TION TE CHNOL OG Y WWW .S TLE. OR G

Feature Article

Debbie Sniderman

Federal Funding: Awarding contracts to lubricant vendors

The U.S. invests steeply in lubricant products, but doing business with the government takes time, effort and a barrel full of patience.

THE U.S. GOVERNMENT serves important roles within the tribology community. Beyond consuming, specifying and regulating many lubricant products currently sold, it funds a wide range of advanced tribology research through business grants, research labs and military and academic programs. TLT examined government purchasing and funding as it applies to lubricant products and the roles of several specific programs.

The U.S. purchases many lubricants and greases for facilities and construction, as well as in Maintenance, Repair and Operations (MRO) categories. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) connects commercial vendors with all types of government agencies seeking products, whether for civilian procurement or Department of Defense military agencies.

The GSA awards contracts to vendors so they can make their products available to agencies to purchase at negotiated rates. Before awarding contracts, the GSA ensures that vendors meet financial and accounting requirements, verifies vendors’ stability and prior performance with the government and checks that they meet the many criteria set by federal laws, such as not being in bankruptcy. Solicitations are located in FedBizOpps, a government-owned Website open to the public. Specific vendor requirements for each contract are listed there.

Denise Elsbernd is the GSA’s director of Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative Group in Kansas City, Mo., and the person responsible for MRO procurements for government-wide initiatives. She explains how the GSA facilitates different types of contracts for use by government agencies. “Once a contract is awarded, agencies can review products they need to purchase that meet their mission. Vendors who are awarded a contract that produces commercially available products would then list them on the GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service Multiple Award Schedules program. However, if a vendor had specifically designed products for a certain agency such as NASA, they may or may not be listed there,” she says.

After a vendor goes through the selection, contract award and negotiation process, it determines what to offer, and the products go onto the list. The GSA provides categories for each product that the vendor wants to offer, and the purchasing agencies themselves decide which products they want to select, not the GSA.

The GSA List of Schedules Website publicly displays vendors for each Special Item Number (SIN). Commercial coatings, adhesives, sealants and lubricants are in a subcategory of the GSA Schedule 51V, the so-called Hardware SuperStore. There are also icons indicating which products listed on GSA Advantage have the USDA BioPreferred label available for public viewing (see Figure 1).

The GSA’s Acquisition Gateway and Interact Portals also have sections open to the public for information about lubricants used in other categories where more opportunities exist. In facilities and construction categories, they are listed under the lubricants/coatings/petroleum subcategory. In the Maintenance and Industrial Products and Services Category, they are listed in the Oils, Lubricants and Waxes subcategory.

“If a purchasing agency has specific technical requirements for products, it will outline its specifications and perform literature reviews and arrange for product demos, testing and other activities to ensure the quality meets what is needed at the time. The entire selection and purchase process is governed by procurement rules in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 8.4, so purchasers have to follow that,” Elsbernd explains.

If there is a problem in the field or if a purchaser really likes a particular product, there are several ways that the GSA helps close the loop with vendors. A Common Acquisition platform records high-performing products, issues, challenges or problems that may have been encountered, and Elsbernd says there is an external piece to it that suppliers can see with limited information.

“Some government organizations also implement quality reporting systems that funnel information up through appropriate chains to the contracting shops. This information may get back to the supplier if the government determines it needs to. It depends if it is a one-off problem. Some organizations hold quarterly meetings with the contractors that have been awarded. There is an annual meeting and Webinar with 51V vendors in all SIN groups to communicate government-wide initiatives, handled by our group in Kansas City,” she says.

While it is critical that products be Trade Agreements Act compliant on the GSA, each schedule has different rules about products being made in the U.S. Standing solicitations in Fed- FizOpps provide detailed information. In general, there is no preference to U.S.-based suppliers, as long as the schedule allows it.

“Becoming a government supplier and getting listed on the GSA is a business decision that producers have to make after learning about and understanding the process and evaluating the pros and cons. There are many actions to perform to get on and hold a contract,” Elsbernd says. She recommends checking out the SINs to see where a vendor fits in the area of 51V and the following online resources:

• GSA Vendor Support Center to help vendors get started:

• GSA list of schedules:

• GSA’s Acquisition Gateway:

• GSA’s Interact: Industrial Products and Services Category:

• The GSA Advantage online shopping service where orders may be placed against schedules and purchasers can see what products are available:

• FedFizOpps.Gov Website where standing solicitations for items are listed:

• How to Sell to the Government:

• For Industry Partners Getting on Schedule:


The USDA BioPreferred Program is another program connecting buyers and sellers of lubricant products (see Figure 2). This program was created by the 2002 Farm Bill and provides authority and funding for the USDA to increase the development, purchase and use of what were then called “innovative biobased” products. Now they are commonly defined as products made from renewable agricultural, marine or forestry feedstock. Products that are not used as food, feed or fuel and demonstrate an innovative approach qualify as part of the program.

The program’s database has about 15,000 total qualified bio-products in 100 product categories identified for preferred federal purchasing. Lubricants make up about 8% of the entire database in 14 categories such as hydraulic fluids, cable and chain lubricants, engine oils and pneumatic lubricants (see 2016 Grease and Lubricant Product Categories and Products Participating in the BioPreferred® Program by Category). They represent about 1,200 individual products, making them one of the more popular products identified by the program.

Kate Lewis, deputy program manager at the USDA BioPreferred Program, explains how the program works. The goal of the BioPreferred Program is to connect manufacturers, distributors and resellers to purchasers in the Federal Government (including the Department of Defense) so more products are selected by contracting officers to support O&M at agencies and military service branches.

The program operates through two initiatives. The first is its federal purchasing initiative. The initiative allows manufacturers to self-identify that their product meets or exceeds the minimum biobased content requirements of one of 97 categories the USDA has identified for mandatory federal purchasing. Manufacturers contact the program and communicate that their lubricant meets or exceeds the minimum biobased content that is set for that product category. Once approved, suppliers’ products are placed on a list of products that are eligible for preferred purchasing preference with federal buyers.

The second initiative is the USDA’s Voluntary Product Certification and Labeling initiative. Manufacturers voluntarily agree to take an extra step and have their products undergo testing to determine its biobased content by a third-party external lab. If the content of the lubricant is at or above the minimum amount set by the USDA in the categories for federal purchasing, the manufacturer earns the right to put a label on their product noting that their product has certified biobased content.

“Certification is a mark of assurance within the federal government, and it’s a tool to extend biobased product education and value beyond the federal government market to the B2B and consumer markets,” Lewis says. “In the lubricant category, a tremendous number of manufacturers have taken this extra step to certify their product and apply the label on their packaging. Lubricants make up approximately 30% of the entire program’s certified products. Within the lubricant category, the most certified products are in the chain and cable lubricant subcategory with 34 certified products.” Eligibility for the program is global, and U.S.-based suppliers receive the same qualification and certification treatment as international suppliers. Lewis says that purchasing trade regulations and acquisition laws require federal agencies to purchase services and goods from U.S.-based companies or countries where we have trade agreements.

About a decade ago, the federal government made purchasing biobased products mandatory, and the voluntary certification labeling initiative started five years ago to provide additional opportunities outside of the federal market. To register products, start by setting up a company profile at and submit information about the company and products. When the profile is approved, program staff contacts the manufacturer to discuss interest level in participation, whether being listed as qualified, certified or both. There is no fee or cost for the manufacturer to work with the program and register a product, but there is a cost involved if the manufacturer wants to have the biobased content externally tested or validated at outside labs.

Another goal of the program is to understand the barriers to implementation— product specification, purchase and use—and develop programs, tools and resources to address them.

“Performance is the first misrepresented barrier to implementation,” Lewis says. “Our data indicates some misinformation in the federal government about the quality of biobased lubricants compared to conventional. We develop case studies and speak about the quality of these agriculturally based innovative products,” she says.

“Price is the second barrier to implementation, and there can be some misinformation, but sometimes it is not. Biobased products serving smaller or growing markets may be more expensive up front than a traditional product already established in the marketplace, and we provide education that not all biobased lubricants cost more. There is a sophisticated approach needed to look at what government and institutional purchases are buying, and it is critical to consider first cost versus total value in order to truly evaluate sustainable products,” Lewis says.

The third most common barrier to implementation is availability. “It is clear that conventional lubricants have been around for decades—or in some cases 100 years—and there is inertia surrounding these products and the attitude about not fixing something that isn’t broken. But when individuals working in the Department of Defense (DoD) or federal government want to move forward and implement the laws to purchase these products, the program has a suite of activities to increase awareness and understanding as an alternative,” she says.


Iowa-based Environmental Lubricants Manufacturing (ELM) Inc. manufactures environmentally friendly bio-lubricants, including railroad rail-curve greases, drill rod greases (see Figure 3), food machinery greases and a number of liquid lubricants such as hydraulic fluids, gear oils and wire rope lubricants. Lou Honary, its president since the company’s inception in 2000, explains how multiple types of government support helped ELM.

Honary originally became involved in biobased projects in 1991 at the University of Northern Iowa’s National Agriculture-Based Lubricants Center, when he and his students started creating biodegradable hydraulic oils from soybeans. He patented and commercialized the first soybean oil-based universal tractor/transmission hydraulic fluid in 1998. He says the state and federal governments and farm producers were key drivers in encouraging him to work on these projects, especially in the early days before forming the company. Initial funding came from the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board, the Iowa Department of Economic Development and later the USDA.

In the mid-1990s he worked with the USDA to come up with a new approach to replacing petroleum products in lubricants involving renewability and biobased content instead of biodegradability alone. By 2000 his efforts resulted in eight to 10 products focusing on the renewability aspect and became the basis of biobased content standards for products like tractor hydraulic fluid and truck grease. He then created ELM jointly with the university research foundation. As a patent owner he became a majority shareholder owner, and the university research foundation that funded the work was the minority owner. At the end of its fiveyear agreement in 2005, 30 products with 40 brand names were transferred to ELM, which became nationally recognized as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the country.

ELM products incorporated years of research results funded by the state and federal agencies. In 2007 a fire in the grease-heating process caused damage to ELM’s grease production capabilities and led Honary to look for alternative process heating methods to avoid using high-temperature heat transfer oils. Research on using microwave technology for processing biobased lithium hydroxide-thickened greases was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, leading to a patent assigned to the university with ELM as licensor and first commercial demonstration site to use this technology in a new manufacturing facility.

“This helped us take a theoretical concept into a commercially viable process with huge energy-saving potential. We also had a Navy contract while at the university to comparatively test biobased and military petroleum-based hydraulic oil products. We learned that many biobased products needed a lot of work to become useable for military applications, especially if they are for combat-related equipment or aviationrelated applications,” he says.

Other government funding while at the university came from the U.S. Department of Transportation to compare railroad track curve greases made from vegetable oils versus petroleum-based versions. “The development of every ELM formulation was all initially supported by the government, and we had significant support while the university was involved. But we haven’t asked the government for support for our research efforts since. We go directly to industry for field trials and buy-in,” Honary says.

“In the last decade, ELM’s products have evolved significantly, and so has the industry’s awareness about biobased products,” Honary says. There are more market opportunities open to using lines of green products, but there is still a long way to go.

Most of ELM’s products have the USDA’s BioPreferred status and label. The only ones that aren’t have yet to be tested, and Honary says they will pass because of their formulation content. Although the BioPreferred label is a benefit when selling to U.S. government agencies, Honary says it hasn’t really helped with non-government customers. “We work with Europeans who insist on the European-based Ecolabel on biobased products. That has initial bearing, but performance and price are more important. We have to perform better than mineral-based products. Then, if the price isn’t too high, field test results become critical. With government clients, labeling is the rule. A product must have the label before approaching them,” he says.

Most of ELM’s business is in the private sector, but the government-related markets it participates in are specifically chosen for lost-in-use applications that discharge directly into the environment. On trucks it is the grease used on the fifth wheel hitch point where tractors are attached to trailers. In railroads it is the grease used on the curves in the track and also on ships, where drilling rod greases, turbine oils and wire rope lubricants wash off during use.

“Working with the government takes a lot of time compared to working with private customers. Bureaucracies are very careful. Products that go into complicated warfighters have to go through several levels of approval. Even in civilian- based military operations that are a little easier, infrastructures are needed to handle the testing and approval process. ELM has limited resources, so we sell through distributors, not our own sales force,” Honary says.

“It is hard to know the government’s performance standards for lubricants when they are used in applications other than military, which has well-established Mil-Specs,” Honary says. “In some lubricant areas there are standards such as those for engine oils or for grease, set by the SAE or NLGI for thickness, grade, ratings and performance, making it easier for biobased products that meet those specifications to sell. But in some areas there is no national or international standard, like for hydraulic oils.”

ELM’s biobased greases meet all of the NLGI requirements for use on trucks and could easily be used in every government agency because government users insist on using products that the equipment manufacturer approves for warranty purposes. But a bigger barrier for government purchasing is lack of product awareness. “Companies like ours have to work with petroleum companies that are selling to the government, and most all of ELM biobased products are sold under private labels or in a few cases under the ELM brands,” he says.


STLE-member Stephen Berkebile, research physicist at U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), says there are many ways lubrication companies can work with the military. ARL concentrates on basic and applied research, and Berkebile says there are two other Army centers involved with lubrication projects. The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) performs ground vehicle research and development. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) conducts aviation R&D.

Lubricants for the military are normally specified by Mil-Specs, many of which are under continued development to meet new needs and capabilities with version updates every five to 10 years. Berkebile says MILPRF- 23699, the performance specification for several classes of turbine engine oil, was recently updated by the Navy to reflect emerging technologies and requirements, and a new specification MIL-PRF-32538 was released in 2015 for higher viscosity aviation gearbox oil.

In some cases, standards developed in the civil sector can satisfactorily supplant military standards, and at least one spec that Berkebile knows of transitioned from military to the civilian organization control; the MIL-PRF-2105 spec for heavy vehicle axle oil used in trucks is now SAE-J2360. This occurs through activities and committees of professional and technical societies, frequently with membership that includes civilian and military employees of the U.S. Department of Defense. He recommends looking for the latest updates on the Defense Logistics Agency Website at

For use in the field, a lubricant must be officially approved. Each MILSpec is a public document and has a contact person, or specification curator, for questions about obtaining approval. Once a product has passed the spec and approval of the spec curator, it goes on the qualified product list. To pass the spec, it needs to pass quantitative and statistical tests before people in the field are allowed to purchase it. The list of qualified products is publicly listed at the publicly accessible Qualified Products Database at

There are systems for the military to communicate with field personnel to learn what products are working well and where there are deficiencies. One example system is the online RIMFIRE Website that is used to collect data about what’s going on at Army aviation in the field. Berkebile explains that the data collected there is reviewed, and decisions about common programs and future goals are set at higher levels then fed down through the chain of Army organizations. ARL is focused on basic research with mid- to long-term goals. “As a research organization, we have the long-term perspective. Other engineering organizations such as TARDEC and AMRDEC, or their equivalents at the Air Force and Navy, typically deal with more near-term military challenges,” he says.

When products are found to be inadequate, military organizations look for new lubricants to be found or developed in several ways. “One way is for spec owners or curators, such as TARDEC for ground vehicles or Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) and Naval Aircraft Command NAVAIR for air vehicles, to determine what lubricant requirements are needed. If the organizations decide they need better capability products, it will be written into the spec. Usually, moving the spec forward with new capabilities, like increasing the temperature stability, is done in partnership with vendors, but not always,” he says.

The military also reaches out to small business for innovative technologies, through programs such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) to solicit vendors to develop new lubricants. One recent example of such a topic was an SBIR requesting increased operation time in loss of lubrication situations (see Figure 4).

The military also performs its own in-house research, conducting literature reviews and consulting with universities, companies and other government organizations. It evaluates new lubricating fluids and tribological materials under relevant conditions. Much of Berkebile’s work is for the loss of lubrication (see Figure 5) in helicopter gearboxes, and he says researchers at his lab are encouraged as part of their mission to publish and present their findings annually at meetings like STLE’s. This allows the Army an internal capability to evaluate lubricant technologies independent of commercial interests and to share the military’s technology needs with the broader community.

ARL’s Open Campus initiative, a new model for collaboration in DOD laboratories, is facilitating cooperation with companies and universities and making DOD-owned laboratory capabilities and expertise more accessible to research collaborators. The Open Campus Website at has information on energy and propulsion research topics (including tribology and lubrication science) and includes contact information to start a dialog if someone has a proposed collaboration.

Typically Berkebile interacts with private industry at early stages of research with smaller companies and startups through interactions at STLE meetings, in the form of in-kind Open Campus partnerships such as Cooperative Research and Development Agreements and through SBIRs. These interactions provide opportunities to investigate the scientific underpinnings of a particular technology while providing the small company some perspective on military needs and requirements. He says opportunities do exist for larger companies to partner through in-kind mechanisms with ARL, but the interactions typically have different commercialization and intellectual property considerations. Larger companies will typically match military needs with their products by working through engineering organizations such as the Mil-Spec curators.

“Some of the biggest lubrication challenges faced by the military today on the ground side by the Army is vehicle efficiency,” Berkebile says. “The fully burdened fuel costs are so high and the price increases by an order of magnitude or more when transporting fuel into the field. Becoming more efficient, even by 1%, creates a big cost savings in fuel delivery. STTR research grants by several organizations have highlighted this challenge.

“The next lubrication challenge has to do with logistics, moving all the different fluids wherever they are needed and making sure they are on hand when they’re needed. Naturally things get mixed up occasionally. Understanding what is in the fluids and their compatibility is important,” he says.

In military aviation, understanding how lubricants handle increasing power density and power out from the engine and drivetrain side also is a challenge. Increased temperatures of helicopter turbine engines need higher-temperature resistance. As more power is put into a specific weight or size of a drive system, oils need increased load-carrying capacities.

Operating under harsh conditions such as loss of lubrication or oil is partly a system design problem but also a lubrication problem (see Figure 6). “There are things the lubricants can do that increase the time and survivability when operating without it,” Berkebile says.


Government contracts can be a good source of funding for new research-based companies. Dr. Pavlo Rudenko, chief technology officer at TriboTEX, shares his experiences working with the government while starting up his lubricant company. TriboTEX created a technology with flat ceramic nanoparticles with two functionally different surfaces for self-generating coatings that can be used on internal components. One side adheres to surfaces and the other reduces friction. The company offers automotive products as well as firearm and specialty lubricants for industrial market (see Figure 7).

Rudenko wanted to work on something with high potential for commercialization during his graduate studies. His advisor in the biomedical tribology field advised him to locate and obtain his own funding for the project, so he obtained student fellowships, scholarships and other small grants to fund his earliest research. His first federal funding came from the DOE’s Hydropower Research Foundation, which sponsored creating a range of solid, inert nanoparticles that could eventually replace additives to make cleaner lubricants used for hydropower. It was during this work that one peculiarly structured nanoparticle outperformed everything else, generating its current IP.

“There was a transition moment, going from student support to looking into funding a private company. One of the best vehicles that exists for that is the SBIR,” Rudenko says. He located SBIR calls for related topics in different agencies: the DOD, DOE, NSF, USDA, NIST and even DOT and says the approach in each was different.

“The DOD and DOE calls had specific problems in mind with solutions as deliverables to the contract. Someone who applies who can solve the problem will most likely get the contract. NSF was open-minded to revolutionary ideas and encouraged everyone to submit ideas to them but decided to fund the best idea compared to all others submitted. For tribologists, the DOD and DOE would be better options because they have plenty of problems that come with aging transports, aircraft and ships. They want to advance the lubricating technologies so far that they can improve those machines without replacing them,” he says.

After founding TriboTEX in 2010, almost all of its research funding came from government. Very little came from private sources, which Rudenko says typically enter at later stages. The Hydropower Research Foundation, NASA and NSF SBIR grants helped with early technology development.

Currently the company is participating in its second NSF Small Business Phase II grant. The initial Phase II in 2015 was for $150,000, and the recent Phase IIb for $733,000 will match funds raised from private investors or commercial partners, so he is seeking private partnerships now.

The current Phase IIb grant is helping create more products and scale up production capacity, which is the company’s current main objective, along with developing a rigorous production process. The company is selling a specialty lubricant product for gun barrels and is starting to market to end-users in vehicle applications before approaching the larger industrial equipment market.

“At this point, our company is expanding marketing and sharing ideas with would-be customers. Providing samples is a big part of what we are doing now, so people can know how the product performs. The government provides money for research, but the research mode doesn’t create products. The government and program directors want and encourage us to become independent from their funding, to develop the product revenue to the point that research money won’t be requested later,” he says.

One drawback in government sponsorship Rudenko mentions is the long time it takes to receive funds. “The procedures and proposal preparation is lengthy. Even with a good idea, with the right SBIR call and a great proposal, if you are selected, which is an unlikely bet, it takes at least six months for the funding to arrive. Not everyone is ready to go to such lengths. Each stage also takes time. It takes two years to go from SBIR Phase I to Phase II. If the tech is in a fast-moving field, like electronics or app development, the field may completely move out of the window of opportunity, and angel investors, venture capitalists and other sources of funding can be faster options. In tribology and lubrication, slowly aging machines and equipment helps make SBIRs processes more comfortable,” says Rudenko.

To locate funding opportunities, Rudenko says to get on mailing lists from individual organizations about SBIR calls, which occur on regular schedules and newsletters. Universities typically have databases of fellowships and scholarships, and he noticed that successful private schools like MIT and Stanford are very supportive to students who are trying to obtain their own research support. He encourages everyone with good ideas to apply no matter what school they attend.

Performance requirements differ between the agencies. While the DOD and DOE communicate very clear metrics of what they are looking to achieve up front in the form of specifications, the NIH and NSF objectives are set by the applicant in the proposal requesting funds for the problem the R&D is attempting to solve. “Discussing the objectives with the agencies helped our success while applying. So did networking and boosting our exposure, like participating in review panels and presenting in conferences. Despite the fact that governments work by strict rules, human factors also matter in creating successful proposals,” he says.

Initial connections with government national labs were easier to make as a student compared to a commercial company. Those that used to be mentors, advisors and collaborators during Rudenko’s doctoral phase are now more reserved. “I plan on completing thirdparty testing with a research institution in the near future, but the process is more involved for projects with commercial aspects,” he says.

Debbie Sniderman is an engineer and CEO of VI Ventures, LLC, an engineering consulting company. You can reach her at


• U.S. federal procurements are managed by the GSA with additional guidance from the Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred Program.

• The military is a large consumer and has its own specifications for many lubricant products.

• Government grants for R&D provide funding for many private businesses.

Read the full article at

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