Grant supports B20 evaluation in BNSF engines

By Erin Voegele
Posted Sept. 3, 2010

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality recently announced a $125,000 grant has been awarded to Opportunity Link, a Havre, Mont.-based economic development agency. The funding will support a project to develop railroad markets for biodiesel, which includes the evaluation of B20 in a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway engine. "We are supportive of environmental initiatives to identify alternative fuel sources and opportunities to reduce emissions," said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.

According to Opportunity Link's Executive Director Barbara Stiffarm, two of BNSF's switcher engines will be used in the evaluation. "BNSF actually…went through the engines and make them as identical as they could," she said. This included replacing the engine cylinders and flushing out the fueling system. One of the two switcher engines will run a B20 blend of biodiesel, the other will be fueled with standard diesel. The engines will be periodically inspected to determine the effects on engine wear and tear.

The evaluation portion of the project is slated to run for one year. Staff at Montana State University Northern's Bioenergy Center will test the B20 fuel, track how much is used, how it's mixed, Stiffarm said. "At the end of each 90 day period, they will completely dismantle those engines and send them to their research and development [department] and have their engineers go through and check the filters and check the cylinders for any differences. Hopefully we are going to show that the biofuel is actually serving as a lubricant and is easier on the engines."

According to Stiffarm, BNSF pumps between 70,000 to 80,000 gallons of diesel each day at each of its filling stations. Successfully demonstrating that a B20 blend of biodiesel can be effectively used to fuel train engines could open up significant market opportunity. Although some locomotives in other parts of the country already run biodiesel blended fuel, the evaluation activities completed through this project will be unique. The one-year project based in Montana will allow the use of B20 to be evaluated in a wide range of severe weather conditions, from temperatures of nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, to temperatures approaching minus 70 degrees in the winter.

"Our whole goal is to increase the demand for biofuels and increase the interest of agricultural producers in producing oil seeds [for biodiesel production]," Stiffarm said. "We're really excited about the potential that these results could create in our region for marketing biodiesel."

While funding awarded through the DEQ grant will be used to offset the additional cost to BNSF for purchasing biodiesel and help support the evaluation processes conducted by MSU Northern, Stiffarm notes that grant is not a research grant. Rather, it is a business venture grant. "The funding was awarded in order to create a market for biodiesel," she said, noting that the results of this evaluation project will help build trust in biodiesel and demand for the fuel.
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