Quality survey indicates improvement

By Jerry W. Kram | March 17, 2008
Efforts to improve the quality of biodiesel are starting to pay off, according to a fuel quality survey highlighted at the National Biodiesel Conference in Orlando, Fla., in February.

The survey, conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, found that 90 percent of U.S. biodiesel production samples met industry specifications for quality, according to NREL Senior Chemist Teresa Alleman.

Alleman's conclusion was based on a relatively large sample size. The sample covered 70 percent of actual U.S. production in 2007 and is believed by NREL to be representative of biodiesel production nationwide. NREL collected the samples from biodiesel producers between April and October 2007. The samples came from plants that produced between 3,000 and 30 million gallons per year from several different feedstocks. NREL tested each sample for critical parameters required by ASTM D 6751, the national standard for biodiesel. "These data show that the biodiesel industry has achieved dramatic improvements in fuel quality since 2006," said Steve Howell, technical director of the National Biodiesel Board. "We expect that this trend will continue so that virtually all biodiesel sold in the U.S. meets these requirements in the very near future."

Alleman said NREL surveys in 2004 and 2006 showed higher levels of quality problems, but she cautioned that the design of those surveys was somewhat different. "Those [surveys] were not linked to production levels, and were sampled at terminals and jobbers, not at the producer level," she said. "I think these surveys are an important thing to do because of the rapid growth of the industry." The fact that more than half of the samples in the 2006 survey failed to meet specifications was a wake-up call for the industry. "In the summer of 2006, our board of directors put into place a strong fuel-quality policy with the goal of increasing the level of in-specification biodiesel in the U.S. to 100 percent," said NBB Chief Executive Officer Joe Jobe.

Plants certified under the BQ-9000 accreditation program fared the best. According to NREL, only one sample from a BQ-9000 producer was out of specification, and that was most likely a sampling or contamination error, not an actual manufacturing issue. There are 27 companies certified under BQ-9000, representing approximately 75 percent of the biodiesel produced nationwide.

The NBB is putting more resources into the BQ-9000 program. It is also working with the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. EPA to enforce biodiesel quality standards. In order to receive tax incentives for biodiesel production, the fuel must meet the specifications of ASTM D 6751. "The NBB's outreach efforts with enforcement agencies and our investment in the BQ-9000 program have yielded terrific results, and we'll continue to push for 100 percent [of biodiesel plants meeting quality specifications]," Jobe said.

Improving biodiesel quality is vital to assuring consumer confidence in the industry, Alleman said. "I think the goal of the industry has to be compliance with 100 percent of the standards 100 percent of the time," she said. "Some may say that's an unobtainable goal, but what we need to strive for is truly perfection."
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