IR analyzers being adopted by blenders

By Susanne Retka Schill | December 21, 2009
Infrared analyzers developed by Connecticut-based Wilks Enterprise Inc. were used to verify biodiesel blends transported through a distribution pipeline to ensure the biodiesel met blend specifications as it entered and left the pipeline. The instruments used for the testing were an InfraSpec VFA-IR Spectrometer and an InfraCal Biodiesel Blend Analyzer.

The InfraCal is a dedicated analyzer that reads out a blend percentage in less than a minute. A small fuel sample of about one milliliter is placed directly on the crystal in the sample window, and after 10 seconds the percent biodiesel is displayed. The sample window is then cleaned using a solvent and a wipe. The analyzer is rugged, can be battery operated and has no moving parts, facilitating on-site use by nontechnical personnel to test blend accuracies. The analyzer can also be calibrated to measure ethanol blends.

The biodiesel blend analyzer can be used to evaluate splash blending. "Obtaining measurement data on the blend ratio from a splash blender is not easy," commented Sandy Rintoul, president of Wilks Enterprise. The splash blending method is susceptible to inaccuracies as it relies upon mixing occurring as the load travels down the road. In one test, five minutes after filling the truck to meet a B20 blend, a sample taken from the top showed an 11.9 percent blend was achieved and the sample taken from the bottom was 24.1 percent. While the company initially thought small blenders would find the small, portable instrument useful, it was adopted first by major oil company blenders. "The large blenders are concerned about the blend being what they say it is," she said. "And the cost, in a range of $6,000 to $7,000, may be more than small blenders feel they can pay."

Wilks has been in the spectrometer business for more than 15 years, and first introduced the biodiesel application about three years ago. "Most of the usage so far has been among terminal or regulatory personnel," Rintoul said. "Because of its accuracy and portability, it can be used at the site-testing at the truck or at the gas pump. The weights and measurement people are using it to test biodiesel blends."

The company makes a similar analyzer that can do multiple spectrums, one of which is biodiesel in diesel like the dedicated analyzer. The InfraSpec VFA-IR Spectrometer can also analyze transesterification of biodiesel, measuring such things as total glycerides, free fatty acid content, water in incoming feedstock or water in methanol. The InfraSpec is designed for use in the field environment by nontechnically trained personnel. Its use in manufacturing facilities has not caught on as widely as it has in the blend market, she added. "Our system is faster than a gas chromatograph, but if they have the equipment already for testing the finished product, they want to use it for everything." She added that the method is before the ASTM committee for consideration as an approved testing method. "We're hoping it could happen within the next year."
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