NBB technical team collaborates with railway industry

By NBB | October 25, 2011

As obligated parties look to blend increasing amounts of biodiesel into a larger portion of the U.S. diesel pool, customers in new markets are beginning to take interest. Biodiesel, as a low-cost compliance option to meet the advanced biofuels requirements of RFS2, is beginning to reach markets where it hasn’t been heavily used previously. As those new markets increase, the desire for information about biodiesel blends and their attributes also increases.

Recently, the U.S. railroad sector has taken an interest in biodiesel—and has asked the National Biodiesel Board Technical Team to help educate them on the impacts of the use of biodiesel blends in their equipment, as well as to put in place plans to address any technical needs or data gaps regarding biodiesel use in railroads.

The U.S. railroad industry, including both freight and passenger divisions, is the third highest consumer of distillate fuel in the United States averaging more than 3.2 billion gallons annually from 2000-'09, with projections of consumption expected to increase in future years. A significant amount of research and development has gone into the use of biodiesel for other on- and off-road applications, but much less has been done with biodiesel in railroad applications. 

Over the past 18 months, the Society of Automotive Engineers Technical Committee 7 set up a subcommittee on Biodiesel in Railroad Applications and the Locomotive Maintenance Officers Association has been investigating biodiesel blends.  The NBB technical team, whose focus is to address technical needs and data gaps with biodiesel and biodiesel blends, collaborated with SAE and LMOA to conduct an assessment of the U.S. railroad system. The assessment covered environmental, technical, and regulatory issues associated with implementation of biodiesel (B5 to B100) in the North American railroad system. It had a special emphasis on understanding technical questions or needs for railroad applications that have not already been addressed through existing research, as well as summarized real world biodiesel experience in railroads to date.

A lot of research and demonstration, mostly with high speed on- and off-road engines, occurred to secure the standard for pure biodiesel (B100) and biodiesel blends. 

“Biodiesel blends meeting specification is a drop-in fuel,” said Kyle Anderson, technical project manager for NBB. “Many of the railroad users were not aware of the tremendous amount of information that went into getting the ASTM standards.”

B5 and lower blends made with B100 meeting D6751 fall under the conventional petrodiesel specification, ASTM D975, and biodiesel is now considered a fungible, drop-in component in petrodiesel. B6 to B20 blends are covered by ASTM D7467. Both D975 and D7467 have been in place since 2008. 

“The assessment provides a valuable tool for railroads as they consider using biodiesel blends,” said Anderson. “We were a bit surprised at the level of biodiesel blend use that has already occurred in railroads in the U.S.” 

In total, more than 3,700 locomotive months of biodiesel and biodiesel blend use with 19 different rail users were identified and summarized, with no major problems being reported by the users. Usage was from a diverse arena of applications including: passenger, commuter/short haul, short line/switching, line-haul, and specialty applications. Use included biodiesel in blends of B5 to B10, B20 to B25, B50 to B100, and B100 over the past 15 years. 

“Most of these were not controlled studies with a lot of data collected. Many of the users tried biodiesel for its emissions benefits (i.e. less black smoke) or because it is a renewable, domestically produced fuel—and then they just kept using it,” said Anderson. “Some users stopped buying biodiesel if the price was substantially higher, but all of the folks contacted said they would use biodiesel blends again if the price was similar to petrodiesel.” 

The assessment indicated both major U.S. railroad engine manufacturers, GE and EMD, currently support the use of up to B5 meeting ASTM standards. Both desire additional data before moving forward with formal support for B20, and the data contained in the assessment provides some of that information. According to the report, the technical experts at SAE and LMOA identified more work on B20 in the areas of emissions, long-term impacts in low-speed railroad locomotive engines, and sharing of existing technical information with the railroad industry as high priority areas for additional effort.

“We look forward to working with the technical experts within the rail industry to develop the data needed for every railroad company to feel confident using B20 and to secure formal support for B20 from the railroad OEMs,” Anderson said.

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