Driving for better fuel economy


Gefei Wu goes to the heart of the engine to squeeze out more efficiency [tweet this]


In 1949, auto drivers in the U.S. got about 15 miles per gallon of gasoline. By May of this year, it had risen 70 percent, to 25.5 mpg. That’s impressive, but not even halfway to meeting the fuel economy standard for Canada and the U.S. of 56.2 mpg by 2025. And the goal for Europe is even higher.

Improvements in motor oil can help reach that goal, says Gefei Wu, research scientist at the Valvoline New Product Development Lab in Lexington, Ky. The task is finding the right balance of liquid lubricant rheology and innovative friction modifier.

“The future trend for motor oil is fuel economy. Every drop counts,” says Wu. “In order to improve the fuel economy, you need low friction in the engine. You need lower oil viscosity.”

But, pardon the pun, here’s the rub: Viscosity, the flow property of the oil, is also what protects engine parts that operate in extreme heat and pressure.

Paying attention to yin and yang
“When the oil film becomes thin, there is the chance for those automotive components to have a boundary lubrication, which means the two moving parts will contact each other with wear,” he explains. “To solve that problem, we require a friction modifier and anti-wear agent. So in order to have better fuel economy you cannot just simply reduce the viscosity of the oil because you will have wear and friction problems.”

That’s where expert mixing of additives is essential.

“I am always amazed at how complicated automotive lubricant is. It looks like oil, we call it oil, but actually it is a solution of many ingredients. A key part is a colloid of detergent and calcium carbonate, which is the same composition as limestone,” he says. “The additives provide the key performances, specifically anti-wear, friction-reduction and longevity. In general, motor oil has up to 20 percent additives.

”It’s a bit of an art to adjust every ingredient to the right level. If you improve one performance, it can hurt another. For example, if you put in too much friction modifier additive, you will have problems with the corrosion test,” he says. “For some anti-wear agents, if you put in too much, you will have deposit problems.”

Wu’s expertise is driving innovation. His collaborations with other Valvoline researchers have resulted in several patents for automotive lubricants and fluids.

Technology leadership
“Gefei is a member of our strategic team and really a leader in our new technology, most importantly in our ultra-fuel-economy products,” says Dr. Fran Lockwood, senior vice president, Research and Development, for Valvoline. “He’s working with the Department of Energy and he’s developing fuel economy products for passenger cars as well as heavy-duty vehicles.

“He has developed friction modifiers for some of our additive packages and he’s our resident expert in seals and foaming, both important properties in lubricants,” she adds. “He also contributes heavily to the coolant product line. Same types of problems, just different types of chemistry systems.”

After joining Valvoline in 2001, he worked on nanofluid research, seeking to improve the thermal conductivity of engine oils and coolants through the use of nanoparticles, microscopic pieces of matter. Later, he was assigned to a Department of Energy project to improve fuel economy in heavy-duty trucks through new formulations of engine oil, axle oil and transmission fluid.

“In order to have efficient research, we started by modeling,” he says. “We put in the rheology parameters and can tell how the oil will perform. And then we adjust the viscosity matrix and try to reach the best results. Furthermore, we employ innovative additives to get the best tribological performance.”

Test, tear down, test some more
After various lab tests, engines were filled with oil and tested at the Valvoline Engine Lab in Ashland, Ky. After running for days, the engines were taken apart and inspected for wear. Next are field tests, or “running in the real world,” as Wu says.

“You always want to relate your test results to the real world,” he says. “That’s why there’s always a lot of money behind each formulation.”

The depth and breadth of Wu’s thinking is a distinct advantage for Valvoline, says Dr. Ed Murphy, director, Strategic Research and Engineering.

“This enables us to work with a wide range of collaborators – the Department of Energy, university environments and manufacturers, such as automakers. Many of the challenges that we face require novel solutions,” he says.

“Gefei has a broad range of understanding of the different components of engine oil or other lubricants. He's able to speak at great depths of understanding about what brings the special qualities to light, whether it’s fuel economy, durability improvement or other special applications,” he adds.

Valvoline can be choosy with ingredients
An advantage for Valvoline is that the research and development team can choose its additive suppliers, unlike other manufacturers who are tied to company-owned suppliers.

“We can combine quality ingredients from other additive suppliers along with base oils,” Wu says. “So we are able to present consumers with a high-quality product.”

He provides a human analogy to mixing additives and base oil.

“Let’s say you have twins and separate them into different environments,” he says. “When they grow up, they turn out to be different people. The base oil is the environment, but the additives provide the key performances, especially anti-wear and friction reduction.”

That sort of thinking is one of the things that impresses Murphy.

“Gefei is a multitalented individual,” he says. “He is able to bring a lot of analytical techniques and an analytical mind to understanding a problem and proposing novel solutions.

“You’ll find him at the lab quite a few hours, diligently working on the next inventive gear oil or an option for an engine oil to get that extra little percentage of fuel economy out of the product,” he adds.

Maybe 56.2 mpg isn’t that far off after all.

Meet Gefei Wu

The irony is unmistakable: A scientist who works to increase fuel economy grew up in a farming community in China where seeing a car was highly unusual.

“When I was a child, a car was a really rare thing. Actually, I never remember a car driving into my village,” says Gefei Wu, research scientist for Valvoline.

He would ride a bus 50 miles to a city each year to visit his grandmother, so he was at least familiar with cars. “Most of my buddies, my friends, never had a chance to see a car, ride in a real car, until they grew up,” he recalls.

Wu, whose first name is pronounced guh-FAY, developed an early interest in the sciences.

“If you look around, everything is related to chemistry,” he explains. “Material things, even a baby plant growing, are all a chemical process. I was always interested in chemistry. I tried to understand every basic thing.”

Education in all sorts of things
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in China, he came to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to work on a doctorate. While there, he also learned about winter and the passion for football in the northern U.S.

“The weather was a big shock to me. I still remember those cold days, when I walked 15 minutes when it was minus 20. When I got home, I felt exhausted,” he says. “My home was in south China. Weather there is like Alabama or Arkansas.”

Gefei with wife, Yuanchun, and son, Matthew

A cheesehead in his office signals an allegiance to the Green Bay Packers pro football team, after some initial bewilderment.

“In the beginning, to most Chinese, football is like fighting among robots,” he says. “After you get into it, you find football is a really complicated game. I got addicted to it. I followed almost every Monday night game until early morning. My New Year’s resolution was to watch less football.”

Wu and his wife, Yuanchun, have one son, Matthew. Yuanchan was a chemical engineer in China and is a homemaker now. Matthew is a sophomore at Duke University, studying electrical engineering.

An accomplished family
His parents were farmers and education was important. His brother is a chief financial officer and his sister teaches at a university, both in China.

Recalling his youth, when cars and even radios were not common in the countryside, Wu appreciates what he has now.

“I always feel I’m in a lucky generation because I have been through those hard times and now I’m doing fancy stuff and live in a fancy country,” he says. “Every single day, I feel happy.”

Playing badminton with colleague Kwame Duho


Selected patents and publications

  • “Integration of Nanofluids into Commercial Antifreeze Concentrates with ASTM D 15 Corrosion Testing,” with D. Turcotte, B. Dwornick, J. Dusenbury, K. Turcotte, X. Cheng, Y. Yang and F. Lockwood, Global Testing of Extended Services Engine Coolant and Related Fluids, 2014.
  • Polishing compositions containing cationic wax microemulsions, with H. Hasinovic, U.S. Patent No. 7,976,624, Jan. 12, 2011.
  • Shock absorber fluid composition containing nanostructures, with Z. Zhang, F. Lockwood and D. Dotson, U.S. Patent No. 7,470,650, Dec. 30, 2008.
  • Gear oil composition containing nanomaterial, with F. Lockwood, Z. Zhang and T. Smith, U.S. Patent No. 7,449,432, Nov. 11, 2008.
  • “Temperature Effect on the Rheological Properties of Carbon Nanotube-in-Oil Dispersions, with Y. Yang, E. Grulke and Z. Zhang, Colloids and Surfaces A,2007.


  • Valvoline Hands-on Experts Around the World Award, 2015. 
  • Valvoline Technology Excellence in Execution Award, 2012.


  • Certified Lubricant Specialist, Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers, 2012.
  • Design for Six Sigma Green Belt, 2007.


  • American Chemical Society.
  • Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers.

Gefei's vegetable garden in his backyard