I use generic gear oil to lubricate my motorcycle’s chain. I have a modern fuel-injected machine, so the chain is the only source of storm-water pollution I can think of. I try to use as little oil as necessary to keep drivetrain lubricated and efficient, and reduce fling. Yet, “as little” is not “none at all”, so I am looking for some alternatives, vegetable or synthetic, that would be economical, minimizes pollution of the soil and water, but at the same time would posses necessary qualities of lubricity, viscosity, and not very sticky to reduce attraction of dirt. If the same type of oil could be used in the marine outboard motor’s gear case, all the better.

In both applications, my needs are by no means high-performance — 12 kW (16 rwhp) motorcycle, and a range of outboards of up to 20 hp. However, the more options, the merrier.

  • I use a wax based lube on my bicycle, and there are some wax lubes for motorcycle chains too. Some bicyclists lube their chain with hot wax but I don't know how well this would work with a motorcycle chain. Since the wax likely has a petroleum origin, I'm not sure if it is significantly better for the environment than small amounts of oil.
    – Johnny
    Apr 24, 2013 at 19:32
  • @Johnny, I know there are biodegradable bicycle lubricants (I have one such chain cleaner), so I am sure synthetic waxes are available too. The difference is that most modern motorcycle chains are a sealed O-ring type (the bushings are protected, but it still needs to be cleaned and lubricated on the outside, between plates), which has different requirements to chemical exposure unlike the all-metal plain old bicycle chain (such as the case with cleaning may be)
    – theUg
    Apr 25, 2013 at 3:15
  • For that reason, by the way, it might be not advisable to use thick greases. I know back in the day it was used, but now it just attracts dirt (although there are wax-based chain sprays, as you had pointed out, I have one as well, but they leave thin film after drying, not clumps of grease everywhere).
    – theUg
    Apr 25, 2013 at 3:20

4 Answers 4


Commercial/ Factory designs have been replacing the power transmission of "lubricated chains" and "gear mechanisms" with high performance "Timing Belts" made of special polymer composited with steel fibre etc.

One of our family was extensively involved in such redesigns/ solutions in all possible industries beyond automotive that you can think of (hydro electric, textile, machinery, airport, industrial/ manufacturing, arms manufacturing, food production & so on). And as a student I remember watching this case study video that talked about how Harley Davidson that benefited a lot from adopting certain company's high performance belts. I could not find that video, but I'll try again to find it for you.

There's industry of Billions replacing chains with such "Power Transmission Belts".

Update: Such a mechanism/ drive train added to a bicycle with Infinite Gears using CVT.


For starters, the belt drive is a lube-free affair, so you never have to add grease, and rust shouldn't be a problem (also, no grease on your pants if you're commuting to work). Priority is using the C-Drive system, which has gotten extremely popular in Europe but hasn't blown up stateside yet.

The Continuum gets its name from the continuously variable transmission (CVT) hub located on the rear wheel that gives the bike a spectrum of gears rather than a fixed number. This style of hub gave me a much smoother ride than a derailleur system, since the drivetrain components weren't brashly jumping between fixed gears on different sprockets but instead smoothly moving over the surface of rotating balls.

Gates, the maker of the belt drive, claims it lasts about 10 times longer than metal chains, and it's easy to imagine after a few months using it. The drivetrain has shown no signs of significant wear even after riding through rain and snow. It's rust-proof, never needs grease, and most importantly, provides a smoother ride because it's not rattling like a goddamn metal chain would.

Image: Gizmodo / Michael Nunez enter image description here

The belt drive alone has changed my life, and now that I've used one, I'm never ever going back to using a bike with a metal chain. I can't emphasise how much smoother the ride is and the immense benefit of getting rid of the chain derailleur.

enter image description here Source: http://www.revzilla.com/common-tread/why-things-are-chopper-drivetrains

enter image description here Source: Chains vs Belts - http://www.motorcycledaily.com/2008/05/08may08_chainsvbelt/

Discussion on Google groups: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.autos.misc/79N2Sy8sf94%5B1-25%5D

  • @theUg did you get a chance to check this answer?
    – Alex S
    Jun 4, 2016 at 1:34
  • This is incorrect. There are not chain replacement kits to migrate to a belt driven design for motorcycles other than HD. There are, however, kits to change from belt to chain. The issue is clearance. In 30+ years of being a motorcycle mechanic and enthusiast I have never seen a kit that can do what you claim. If they are available, it's only for a couple of models.
    – Citizen
    Jun 11, 2016 at 0:02
  • @Citizen I do not know what's available to shop in the automotive shops/ market as "kits" where you work as a mechanic. I do know engineering design people whose job is replacing old metal chain & gear systems with new age high performance belt drive systems. I'm pointing out the technical alternative that exists, not offering a shopping product list. Maybe this only happens at OEM level & not aftermarket for certain models, but the engg people I know do it for OEM & aftermarket, for many industries, besides just automotive.
    – Alex S
    Jun 11, 2016 at 2:39
  • @theUg - If this is not a more sustainable, less maintenance & longer lasting option then I don't know what is
    – Alex S
    Mar 3, 2017 at 10:33

First of all you are picking up pennies while the world is burning bills. The amount of oil from your chain is small even compared to the amount of oil that comes out of your exhaust, which in turn is small compared to the unburned hydrocarbons from the gasoline, which in turn is small compared to what everyone in their SUV's are releasing. You are already a good citizen.

But that's not what you asked.

Take a look at some of the products at bicycle shops. One product I like is a graphite powder in mineral spirit solvent & oil. The spirits evaporate, leaving the graphite with enough of a film of oil to keep the graphite from running away. There is similar product that uses Teflon. A friend who is an ardent cyclist claims that for these to work well, you have to remove ALL the oil from the chain. This usually means two washes with solvent, then a wash in acetone to remove the oil film left by the solvent. But talk to the guys in the bicycle shop.

Caveat: The forces between chain and tooth are a LOT smaller on a bicycle than on a motor bike. If this doesn't work you may need two new sprockets and a chain.

My estimate is that the graphite would work better. The key for it is keeping it attached to the chain.

For an outboard motor, the key is keeping the seals intact. Also: Many outboard motors discharge their exhaust under water. This is NOT friendly. Run your motor in a barrel of water for 20 minutes, let the water set overnight, and look at the reflection in the morning.

Almost all pollutants are tolerable sufficiently diluted. Using a tiny put-put going through a swamp that sees a dozen boats a year is unlikely to be an issue. Take close look at the shore line, however at any marina.

  • As I answered to a comment on my question, the bicycle advice may not always apply, as the modern motorcycle chains are the sealed O-ring type, thus any harsh chemicals may destroy the rubber O-rings sealing the bushings. So, it’s something to consider. Also, washing with solvents and acetone doesn’t seem pollution-free as well (hmm, I sense a question in the near future). As for outboards, I think it applies more to 2-strokes. I’m confident that my newer 4 HP Tohatsu/Mercury 4-stroke is fairly clean (as clean as carburetted exhaust can be).
    – theUg
    Apr 25, 2013 at 6:08
  • @theUg - Check the updated answer below on usage in an infinite gear bicycle
    – Alex S
    Mar 3, 2017 at 10:35

What you essentially want can be achieved in two ways:

  1. Biodegradable oil. The idea is that the oil you emit to the environment biodegrades so that even though you emit some oil, it won't cause as much harm. The problem of this approach is that there may be no mechanism to prevent it biodegrading in your chain. You want the degradation to happen only if emitted to the environment but you want it to stay as-is in the chain, which may not be feasible.

  2. An oil that penetrates to the innards of the chain and subsequently will stay in the chain. If the oil will stay in the chain, you won't emit it much.

I would pick approach (2). The requirements of this approach may be somewhat contradictory. In particular, you want the chain oil to penetrate to the innards of the chain which requires it to be thin, and then subsequently stay in the chain which requires it to be thick. A chain oil that is thick and thin at the same time. Sounds impossible, right?

Well, it is possible. There are liquids that are both thick and thin. The interesting property is thixotropy. If you agitate a thixotropic liquid, the movement makes it thin. If you then leave it settle, it gradually becomes thick.

These thixotropic chain oils are usually found in a spray can. The act of shaking the can and subsequently spraying the oil makes it thin, so when you apply it, it quickly penetrates to the innards of the chain. Then when left inside the chain, it becomes thick, helping it stay there.

How to test if a spray can oil is thixotropic: shake the can, spray it to a glass container, test by tilting the glass container how thin the liquid is. Then leave it settle for a day. Check again if it has become thicker.

I don't know about motorcycles but in bicycles the rules of thumb of oiling the chain are:

  1. Oil the chain only when it needs the oil. Prior to oiling the chain, wipe the dirt away from the chain. Unnecessary oiling will cause accelerated chain wear. By reducing the number of times you oil the chain, you reduce the amount of chain oil emitted to the environment.

  2. Put as minimal amount of oil to the chain as you can. This also helps reduce the amount of chain oil emitted to the environment.

  3. After oiled, remove the surface oil with a rag so that only oil inside the chain stays on the chain. This also helps reduce the amount of chain oil emitted to the environment.


In 2003, Ford Motor Company unleashedd the Conceptual model car, the Model U, instead of petro, it used refined Sunflower seed oil for lubrication. enter image description here

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