Don’t know beans about biodiesel? Fuel school is here to help

Terry Scruton
staff writer

While the term biodiesel may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, the truth is it's an idea that has been around almost as long as the diesel engine itself.

In fact, the first diesel engine, invented by Rudolf Diesel, ran on peanut oil at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris.

In spite of that, there are still a lot of unanswered questions out there about biodiesel. Separating science fact from science fiction isn't always easy, but with the help of some knowledgeable sources, Land Line set out to boldly go where some have gone before and reveal the truth that is out there behind the force that is biodiesel.

What is biodiesel made of?
According to the National Biodiesel Board, the "bio" portion of biodiesel can come from any number of sources - from sunflower and vegetable oil to oil made from animals such as chickens and cows.

Much of the biodiesel produced in the U.S. is made from soybeans. Peter Bell, a partner in BioWillie-brand biodiesel, told OOIDA's board of directors in November 2005 that some research is even looking into producing biodiesel from algae.

Does it work the same as diesel?
That is a subject that is still open for debate. Proponents of biodiesel maintain that it is perfectly safe and will operate as well as, if not better than, regular diesel. But there have been some cases such as what's happening in Minnesota (see related story on Page 54), where bad biodiesel may be to blame for clogged fuel filters and other problems.

Manufacturing issues aside, Joe Jobe, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board, said that the performance of biodiesel is virtually the same as that of diesel.

"One of the major advantages of biodiesel is the fact that it can be used in existing engines and fuel injection equipment with little impact to operating performance," Jobe said.

"Biodiesel has a higher cetane number than most U.S. diesel fuel. In more than 50 million on-road miles and countless marine and off-road applications, B20 shows similar fuel consumption, horsepower, torque, and haulage rates as conventional diesel fuel."

Is it going to void my (truck or engine) warranty?
Not likely. Jobe said the use of B20 blends and below will not in itself void the engine warranty of any major U.S. engine manufacturer.

Though some OEMs do not recommend blends of biodiesel above 5 percent, Jobe said that doesn't mean higher blends will automatically void the warranty.

"Any problem that is caused by fuel, whether it is biodiesel or diesel fuel, is not covered under the vehicle warranty," he said. "Problems caused by fuel are the responsibility of the fuel supplier and not the vehicle manufacturer."

Indeed, Caterpillar Inc. states in its Commercial Diesel Engine Fluids Recommendations handbook that, while using biodiesel will not void the warranty on an engine, any damage caused by any fuel isn't covered by the warranty.

A spokeswoman for Cummins said their warranty policy is similar to Caterpillar's.

However, Jobe said the National Biodiesel Board is working with all of the major OEMs to secure positive, clear position statements that will leave no confusion in their support of B20 blends and below.

Will it hurt my engine?
Jobe said the switch to low-sulfur diesel fuel has caused most OEMs to switch to components suitable for use with biodiesel, though he cautioned that users should contact the manufacturer for specific details.

Caterpillar's handbook, states that Caterpillar neither approves nor prohibits the use of biodiesel in its engines, but that the company "is not in a position to evaluate the many variations of biodiesel and the long term effects on performance, durability or compliance to emissions standards for Caterpillar products."

Caterpillar however, has not yet approved biodiesel for use in its engines that use ACERT technology.

A spokeswoman for Cummins told Land Line that her company recommends using only a B5 blend in its engines, rather than B20. She said Cummins has not yet completed evaluations for blends higher than B5 and cannot recommend them at this time. However, the B5 blend has been approved for safe usage in all Cummins engines.

Why use a B20 blend?
A B20 blend, or a blend of 20 percent animal or vegetable oil and 80 percent diesel, is the most commonly used blend because it has been determined to be the safest maximum blend and can be used as a replacement for diesel with no engine changes needed.

Other, lower blends, are also fairly common. Minnesota uses a 2 percent blend, while Cummins recommends a B5 blend for all of its engines.

Jobe said the use of blends higher than B20 requires additional precautions - such as additives and engine modifications - to be used safely.

"For example, some diesel systems contain certain types of elastomers and natural rubber compounds that pure biodiesel will soften and degrade over time," he said. "Using high percent blends can impact fuel system components (primarily fuel hoses and fuel pump seals) that contain elastomer compounds incompatible with biodiesel. Blends of B20 or lower have not exhibited elastomer degradation and need no changes."

Bell said the other reason for using a blend is the supply issue. There simply isn't enough renewable fuel produced to meet demand without blending it with diesel and spreading out the supply.

Does it run cooler than diesel?
Jobe said the National Biodiesel Board has heard some anecdotal reports that some engines run cooler when using biodiesel, but the board does not have enough data to support this claim.

Neither Cummins nor Caterpillar had any data on this claim.

Will biodiesel separate/gel in cold temperatures? 
Cold weather can cloud and gel any diesel fuel, including biodiesel. Jobe said that users of B20 blended with No. 2 diesel won't see many cold flow problems until the thermometer dips between 2 degrees and 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

For 100 percent biodiesel, Jobe said winter usage precautions are about the same as for low-sulfur No. 2 diesel - blending it with No. 1 diesel, using fuel heaters, and storing the vehicle in or near a building. The B20 blend should also be blended with No. 1 diesel for winter usage, and cold flow improvement additives can also help.

Jobe said the exact ratio for blending diesel for winter driving depends on the needs of individual vehicles based on the climate of the area in which they will be operating. He said that fuel distributors that handle biodiesel on a regular basis should have a good knowledge of the region's climate and what blends are needed in that region.

How many mpg does it get?
Jobe said the Btu content of pure, 100 percent biodiesel is about 10 percent lower than regular diesel. But in blends of B20 and below, the difference in Btu content is negligible.

"In other words," he said. "The miles-per-gallon would be essentially the same as diesel fuel."

Does it meet CARB standards?
Pure biodiesel meets the California Air Resources Board's standards for sulfur, aromatic, and cetane content, Jobe said. Therefore, biodiesel can legally be used in California in pure form or in blends, as long as it is blended with CARB diesel.

Also, Jobe said distributors must properly follow the requirements of the California Division of Measurement Standards.

Is biodiesel illegal in Texas?
Not exactly. There was some controversy about this in the fall of 2005, when rumors were circulating that Texas had banned biodiesel.

In fact, what happened was that 110 counties around Houston, San Antonio and Dallas failed to meet the Texas Low-Emission Diesel standards, or TexLED. The state requires a reduction in NOx - nitrogen oxides - emissions of 5.8 percent. Biodiesel, however, increases NOx emissions.

This meant that all but one of the mixtures in use in the eastern half of Texas was no longer allowed. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that mixture is from supplier Biodiesel Industries Inc. of Dallas-Fort Worth. All retailers had until Jan. 31 to sell off what was in their tanks and replace it with an approved mixture.

Where can I purchase biodiesel?
There are only about 650 retail stations in the U.S. that sell biodiesel. The National Biodiesel Board has a list of biodiesel retailers on its Web site at biodiesel.org.



Minnesota works to resolve issues with biodiesel

As state officials offered a last-minute extension of a waiver on a biodiesel mandate, researchers in Minnesota reported in mid-January that they had narrowed down at least part of the problem with the state’s biodiesel supply.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that representatives from the state’s biodiesel industry met with officials Jan. 11 to ask for more time to fix the problem and clean up the supplies of biodiesel in the state. Preliminary tests indicated some batches of biodiesel had high levels of glycerin, which caused gelling in cold weather and clogged fuel filters.

The only trouble is, industry officials say they don’t know where the bad batches came from or how widespread the problem is, hence the suspension of the mandated sales.

The initial problem arose shortly after the state enacted a mandate in October 2005 requiring that all diesel sold in the state be a 2 percent biodiesel blend.

By November 2005, trucking and farming operations across the state were reporting problems with clogged fuel filters and stalled engines.

One trucking company in Wisconsin, which bought its biodiesel from a Minnesota supplier, reported similar problems.

The state suspended the mandate in December 2005 and put researchers to work on the problem. That suspension was scheduled to run out Jan. 13. The extension gave the biodiesel industry until mid-February to clean up the supply and get it back on the road.

In addition to fixing the problems, Minnesota’s biodiesel industry has also proposed a quality-control program to make sure this doesn’t happen again.    

Plans are in the works for mandatory accreditation of biodiesel plants, and for certification of shipments to meet state standards, according to the Pioneer Press.