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Fuel quality, feedstock availability the main issues facing biodiesel

ATLANTA, Ga. - Biodiesel is far from perfect, but its quality is improving. That was the message from Richard Nelson of the National Biodiesel Board at the National Truck Equipment Associations' Work ...

ATLANTA, Ga. –Biodiesel is far from perfect, but its quality is improving. That was the message from Richard Nelson of the National Biodiesel Board at the National Truck Equipment Associations’ Work Truck Show.

“We tell you the good, the bad and the ugly -I’m not hear to sugar-coat this,” Nelson told delegates during the show’s Hybrid Truck and Alternative Fuels Summit.

Nelson admitted that ensuring the quality of biodiesel remains the biggest challenge facing the expanding industry. Biodiesel demand in the US skyrocketed to 450 million gallons in 2007, nearly doubling from the 250 million gallons consumed the previous year, Nelson pointed out.

“We are expanding, we’re more than a drop in the bucket,” Nelson said. “But we’re not going to replace all the diesel fuel, we don’t have the feedstocks to do that.”

The National Biodiesel Board says the industry aims to produce volumes equal to 5% of on-road diesel fuel used in the US by 2015, which totals 1.85 billion gallons per year. In order to meet that target, Nelson said the industry must overcome two key challenges: fuel quality and feedstock availability.

“Simply put, B20 (or any other blend) will not be a factor if fuel quality can not be met on a consistent basis,” admitted Nelson.

The industry has developed a B100 (100% biodiesel) standard called ASTM D 6751-07b which must be met by all producers in order to qualify for US tax credits and to become road-legal.

It includes limits for 18 different properties and is feedstock-neutral. The increased emphasis on quality appears to be working, Nelson said.

In 2006, tests showed that nearly 60% of biodiesel failed to meet the spec’. However in 2007, 89.7% of biodiesel tested met the specification. Nelson admitted, however, that while 94% of large producers were on spec’, only 28% of the volume produced by small producers met the standard.

“These guys are not investing capital to get the automatic control equipment,” he said, adding that trucking companies should deal with a reputable biodiesel supplier.

He also suggested they request certificates of analysis from their suppliers, to determine which feedstocks were used.

“Each biodiesel feedstock varies by its free fatty acid content and the different proportions of fatty acids found in each feedstock influence some biodiesel fuel properties,” Nelson pointed out. Cold flow properties and cetane levels are just two characteristics impacted by the feedstock.

While the ASTM standard for B100 has helped improve biodiesel quality, there was no such standard for weaker blends such as the more commonly-used B20 when Nelson presented at the Work Truck Show. However, since then, a standard for B20 has been developed (see related story below for details).

The availability of feedstocks is another issue facing suppliers. Currently, about 80-85% of biodiesel is derived from soybean oil, Nelson pointed out. That (along with the conversion of soybean fields to corn fields to satisfy rising ethanol demands) has helped drive up the cost of soybeans from 24 cents/lb to 55 cents/lb.

It has also sent biodiesel prices skyrocketing. One delegate based in Atlanta said the cost was 14 cents/gallon higher than traditional diesel and Nelson admitted the premium is even higher in other regions.

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