The Nature of Standards

A significant effort has been made by the biodiesel industry to create quality standards and encourage producers to adhere to those standards. But why are standards necessary in the first place? What do they contribute to the industry that makes all the time, effort and negotiations worthwhile?
By Jerry W. Kram | June 17, 2008
ASTM, CEN, ISO-all of these acronyms precede quality standards that are becoming increasingly familiar to biodiesel producers as the industry expands into new markets.

Producing a consistent, quality product has long been seen as an absolute necessity for convincing consumers that biodiesel is a reliable option for fueling vehicles. Determining what qualities are important for producers, consumers and equipment manufacturers is a complex process that must balance the needs of all the participants. It can take years or even decades to hash out acceptable standards plus the methods needed to accurately test those standards.

So why go to all that trouble? Creating the ASTM standard for biodiesel has involved nearly 700 participants, says Steve Westbrook, chair of the ASTM International subcommittee that continues to work on the evolving biodiesel standard. Coordinating so many people alone is a daunting proposition, not to mention getting them to come to a consensus on the issues under consideration. There must be some significant benefits to an industry to having a set of standards that are generally agreed upon.

Finding Consensus
ASTM International is recognized as an independent organization whose expertise is widely used by industry and governments as a source and reference for standards and testing methods. ASTM is made up of committees that produce standards for everything from reinforced concrete to ski equipment. The D 02 Committee is responsible for petroleum products and lubricants, and Subcommittee E is responsible for burner, diesel, marine and nonaviation gas turbine fuels, which includes biodiesel. "There is a philosophy behind ASTM," Westbrook says. "No one anywhere is required to use an ASTM standard. Regulators do use our standards, and that is their prerogative. But ASTM is not a governing body.

It is just a way to get all these stakeholders together. The ultimate goal is to get the best consensus standard you can."

While ASTM generally doesn't always seek out stakeholders to be a part of its standards setting process, in some cases the organization makes an effort to bring industry participants into the process. "Biodiesel has been one of those cases where we have tried to make the people we believe would have an interest aware they have an opportunity to participate," Westbrook says.

The ASTM process is consensus based, Westbrook says. Any member of a committee or subcommittee can hold up the adoption of a rule by stating an objection and giving their reasons for concern. The subcommittee then must either satisfy the stakeholder that their concerns have been taken into account, modify the rule to assuage those concerns or seek a vote of a supermajority of its members to determine that those concerns are not relevant to the standard in question. Once a consensus is reached in the subcommittee, the standard must be approved by consensus at the committee level and again by the ASTM International board. At each level, an objection can send the standard back to the subcommittee for more work. "ASTM is not set up as a dictatorial process," he says. "There are specific controls and processes to prevent any kind of a change-a new specification, test method or anything-from being forced on an industry. There are checks and balances throughout the process." He adds that in his experience many items that were approved by his subcommittee were voted down by the next higher level and sent back for more work.

The decision to add or modify a standard is a serious undertaking. "There is no one process [for initiating a new standard]" Westbrook says. "In my subcommittee we generally have a couple of different ways that proposed changes are introduced. It is open access to anything someone wants to bring up and a single person can start it, a group can start it or it can come from a task force." Sometimes the needs of producers or consumers drive the standards process and committee members request the change. Sometimes the impetus comes from ASTM's testing groups that work on different technical aspects of the standards. In other cases, changes in government regulations make alterations to ASTM's standards necessary. Westbrook says the mandate for ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel made it necessary for the organization to create new standards and testing methods specifically for that product. "We had no choice but to make that change," he says.

Out in the Cold
Sometimes events show the need for a new standard or testing method. An example of the latter is the widely publicized gelling problems that occurred in Minnesota in the winter of 2005-'06. Investigation showed that under certain conditions some biodiesel formed a precipitate at temperatures above the cloud point. The cold soak filter test was developed to quantify the problem and that test was under consideration as an official test under the biodiesel specification, ASTM D 6751. "The situation in Minnesota was the biggest reason we started working on that," Westbrook says. "We really didn't have anything in the specification that addressed that."

Members of the subcommittee brought the results of their individual investigations of the cloud point problem to the subcommittee. Their work showed the problem was sufficiently serious to convince the entire committee the work needed to be done on it. "We started to work on what it would take to address it," Westbrook says. "There is still a lot of discussion going on about whether the test method is correct and whether the specification as a pass/fail test is the correct one. They are asking, 'Is this sufficient to protect the guy who is driving a car or driving a truck on a biodiesel blend?' I would bet if you talk to most of the biodiesel manufacturers, they would say it's more than sufficient. But if you ask some of the OEM (original equipment manufacturers) guys, there is more of a thought that it should have been tighter because we don't want the risk of plugging fuel filters."

With the problem identified and a possible method to test for it, the committee had to commission work to determine whether the cold soak filter method was up to the task of protecting users' engines. An evaluation of the method is due to be completed soon. "In Subcommittee E we put a high premium on having some sort of reliable test data people can look at and make a judgement," Westbrook says. "A very large follow-up program was created that dealt specifically with making sure that the test method was as good as it could be. We want to reduce the possibility that one lab could run the same sample of biodiesel and get a completely different number than another lab. We especially don't want one lab to say it's a pass and the other says it's definitely a fail."

Further tests included running vehicles with biodiesel samples with different cold soak test results in a dynamometer facility in Canada. "A lot of time and money has been spent to make sure that whenever that specification is set it is as good as we can make it," Westbrook says. "It might be made better later, but right now it is as good as we can make it."

While the cloud point situation was an example of the subcommittee moving relatively quickly, albeit with deliberation and due diligence, the process of creating ASTM D 6751 has been a continuous series of negotiations. "You could go down the list of every specification in D 6751 and recognize there has been some negotiation on some detail or another," Westbrook says. "For pretty much everything in the specification, there are folks who have wanted the spec to be tighter and folks who have wanted it to be looser, or even have that spec not be included. In general, people who make biodiesel don't want these specifications to be anymore onerous than they have to be, because that adds cost to their production. On the other hand, the people who make engines don't want that specification to be any more loose than it has to be because they want to try and make sure their engines have as little problem with the fuel as possible. So you set about to create a compromise and sometimes there are properties like the precipitates issue that weren't really on the radar until there was a big problem."

Even when a specification is finally adopted, the committees, subcommittees and task forces of ASTM continue to look for new and better ways of ensuring quality specifications are met. However, those methods are calibrated against existing ASTM methods to ensure manufacturers and users have consistent results. "There are tests that are designated as referee methods," Westbrook says. "Usually that's the first test method put in place for a material. But in the meantime there have been improvements in test equipment and methods. There are allowances for this. [In D 6751] you can see this in flash point, in cloud point, cetane measurement and sulfur. There are all kinds of test methods for measuring sulfur. But there is always a referee method in case there is a dispute between buyer and seller on what a test result was."

Why it Matters
What all this effort accomplishes is, in a way, simplicity. Having a clear specification for a material means that a buyer and seller have agreed, in advance, on what is to be exchanged in a transaction. "The idea is to come up with a material that is described by a particular specification or analyzed by a particular test method," Westbrook says. "That allows both the buyer and seller to look and say, 'Yes that is what I want to buy or sell.' That avoids a bunch of contract negotiations. You don't reinvent the wheel every time you write a contract. That's what started ASTM more than 100 years ago."

Beyond direct purchases of materials such as biodiesel, authoritative standards make life easier for the companies that build the equipment that use that material. "Original equipment manufacturers such as a diesel truck or engine manufacturer will want to know what kind of fuel they will have to design their trucks to burn," Westbrook says. "ASTM D 975 describes that fuel. Some would argue it doesn't do a sufficient job of describing that fuel, but it is something. So the OEMs have a way to design an engine that will work on that particular fluid."

Ultimately, it is the end user that benefits from all the work that goes into creating a standard for biodiesel. Ironically, Westbrook says, those are the people who are least likely to take part in the process. There are some exceptions such as companies that manage large fleets of diesel vehicles, but the average trucker driving down the road likely doesn't have the time or inclination to investigate that deeply what he is putting into his or her fuel tank. "There are very few truckers who would come to an ASTM meeting, because you have to have a bigger stake," Westbrook says. "But those are the guys who pay the price if a fuel doesn't meet the spec or an engine was designed that doesn't run on the fuel that is out there. So [ASTM specifications] are a way to make sure that everybody gets what they need to make the whole system work."

Jerry W. Kram is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 738-4962.
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