Beneficial Blending

Fuel dispensers that offer up to three different blends of biodiesel are relatively new to the retail market. Although the concept is simple, the blender pumps have been slow to catch on. Biodiesel Magazine talks to the experts about whether the dispensers will increase the market for biodiesel, and what obstacles are preventing their widespread use.
By Kris Bevill | March 09, 2009
When Seaport Biofuels installed the nation's first biodiesel blender pump in February 2008, company leaders believed it was the bud of a robust new branch to their business and a way to increase the market for biodiesel. After the first few weeks of offering its urban customers the choice of B20, B50 or B99, Seaport's vice president of finance, Travis Paulson, proudly proclaimed that sales were "through the roof" and that the company planned to help install more biodiesel blenders in the Seattle area.

A year has passed and the outlook from Seaport's business office is a bit different. "Sales have fallen quite a bit, not because of the pump but because of the market," Paulson says. In mid-February, Paulson told Biodiesel Magazine that Seaport was paying between 60 and 70 cents more per gallon for B99 than for standard diesel. With a spread like that it's impossible for higher biodiesel blends to compete with the lower-priced straight diesel, he says. As a result, Seaport has lowered the biodiesel percentages offered through its blender dispensers by at least half. Paulson says that by selling B50, B20 and B5 they can keep prices more competitive with diesel, and make sure their customers are happy and able to purchase the product. "That's the beauty of a blender pump," Paulson says, adding that having that flexibility is the No. 1 reason why station owners should want to invest in blender pumps. While the blender dispenser may not have turned out to be a boon for the retail gasoline business or the biodiesel industry quite yet, Paulson is still optimistic. Biodiesel blender pumps are "the only way the industry is going to survive," he says.

Dubuque, Iowa, gas station owner Ron Mussehl has come to a similar conclusion about the biodiesel blender dispensers. He installed one at Ron's Five Point Mart in July 2008. Mussehl says he "hasn't heard a whole lot" of feedback from his customers since installing the pump, but the fuel continues to sell so he's keeping it. Customers at Ron's station are primarily soybean farmers and they purchase biodiesel because they see it as a way of supporting themselves, Mussehl says. Why not use fuel derived from the very thing they grow to motor their pickups through their soybean fields? Mussehl believes that as time goes by, more of his customers will start to support farmers and become biodiesel fans. He says he installed a blender dispenser now so he will be ready when demand picks up in the future. Mussehl offers blends with no more than 5 percent biodiesel so he hasn't been as heavily impacted by the diesel-biodiesel price differences as Seaport has in the Pacific Northwest. For now, Mussehl says he probably won't increase the blends offered at his pump in the summer months because he feels the local market is happy with the B2 and B5 that are currently offered at Ron's Five Point.

How the Pumps Work
All fuel blender dispensers operate in the same basic fashion. Fuel is supplied to the pump from two separate storage tanks-one standard diesel and one biodiesel. For the consumer it's as easy as pushing a button to select a desired blend of fuel. From there, the dispenser does all the work. Inside the pump are two sets of hydraulics with proportional blending valves, one for each feedstock. Electronics in the valves control the ratio of each fuel flowing through the hose to the consumer's tank, resulting in a B2, B20, or whatever desired blend the pump has been programmed to release. At Mussehl's station, for example, his blender pump is supplied by one storage tank filled with standard diesel and another filled with a B5 blend. Customers who select B5 receive fuel directly from the B5 tank while those who opt for B2 receive a 60/40 blend from the two storage tanks.

Fuel dispenser manufacturer Dresser Wayne designed the pump that's being used at Ron's Five Point. Scott Negley, Dresser Wayne's North American product management director, says that because standard diesel dispensers have the same components as gasoline dispensers, the same blending dispensers that are commonly used for blending gasoline can be used for biodiesel. Thus the price for a blender dispenser compared with a nonblending dispenser is no different. Converting a standard pump to a blender pump is also a possibility, but only for certain types of fuel dispensers, Negley says.

Boosting the Industry
Blender dispensers are certainly a new way for biodiesel to enter the consumer market, but not everyone believes that they alone will be the saving grace of the industry as indicated by some retailers. National Biodiesel Board Chief Executive Officer Joe Jobe says it would be a stretch to claim that blender pumps are the best option available to keep the industry afloat. "Blender pumps will be a great help in certain markets, and will be especially helpful in new stations that are going in, as well as stations that are upgrading or adding pumps, tanks, islands or blend offerings," he says. "This represents an important segment of the market and the industry, but it might be a bit of an oversell to suggest that this new segment is going to be the singular savior of the industry." He says that a combination of both energy policy change and added infrastructure will be the key to expanding biodiesel use in the United States. "Efforts to achieve reasonable economic competitiveness with diesel fuel remain the near, medium and long-term challenge for the industry, with each requiring different objectives," he says. Nonetheless the NBB strongly supports the increased availability of blender dispensers for biodiesel.

Negley says there are several obstacles facing retailers who might be considering placing a biodiesel blender pump at their filling station. Perhaps the most pressing issue is the ability to supply fuel for the trucking industry. According to Negley, the ultra-high capacity diesel dispensers used to fill Class 8 trucks lack the proportional blending valves required for blender dispensers. For now, drivers of semi-trucks have no choice but to pump whatever single diesel blend is available at a particular filling station. The NBB says that over-the-road semi-trucks are the single largest component of the diesel engine category in the U.S. so if a manufacturer were to design a blender pump for use with big rigs the impact on the biodiesel industry could be substantial. There are currently no ultra-high capacity biodiesel blenders in the works, however, as interest increases, new alternatives should
become available, Negley says.

Yet another obstacle faced by would-be blender dispenser operators is the Underwriters Laboratories Inc. The not-for-profit safety organization issues certifications for thousands of products each year but, according to UL spokeswoman Michelle Press, the UL "has not certified blender dispensers for use with biodiesel and has no active submittals on biodiesel blender pumps." The lack of UL certification means that while manufacturers might be offering the product and stations might be installing it, its safety has yet to be certified by the UL. John Drengenberg, UL consumer affairs manager, says they are committed to supporting new technologies and that the goal is to "get them approved." While they have not received a request for biodiesel blender dispensers, they are currently working on a manufacturer's submittal for a blender dispenser for use with ethanol, he says. Because products are subjected to rigorous testing before receiving UL approval, Drengenberg declined to estimate when the blender dispensers might receive UL certification.

Although UL certification isn't required for a product to be lawfully used, the seal of approval aids in the regulation process. Drengenberg says there are more than 5,000 local inspection agencies throughout the country that determine what products are locally acceptable. "Most of them know what the UL is," he says, adding that local inspectors look for the UL label on products to help determine whether a product can be safely used in their area. Already installed blender dispensers may or may not be UL approved when the organization finally releases its regulations. Drengenberg says they will continue to work with the industry to develop new requirements as needed.

One item related to biodiesel that the UL has made recommendations on is the percentage of the fuel to be safely blended with standard diesel. "For the purpose of maintaining the UL listing on the dispenser we recommend using up to B5 [but] the components in our standard models are compatible up to B20," Negley says. "We are waiting for UL to publish a standard similar to that done for higher ethanol blends." If and when the UL does publish recommendations for higher blends of biodiesel, climate will continue to play a role in dictating which blends can be offered at blender pumps. "A high concentration biodiesel feedstock can create problems when the product is sitting idle in the dispenser prior to the blend valves," Negley says.

Biodiesel blender dispensers are clearly far from becoming a mainstay in the retail fuel market. While the positives are many, regulatory issues vary from region to region and, as with any new product, investing in the idea can be a bit of a gamble. Blender dispenser veteran Paulson suggests those interested in blender dispensers take the time to do the research before investing. "You don't want to put a dispenser out there that you'll have to tear apart because they're not cheap," he says. "Do your homework and take the time to contact people who have the dispensers and work with them."

Kris Bevill is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 373 8044.
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