A Real Biodiesel Insider

By Holly Jessen | April 01, 2006
After years of biodiesel research and testing, studies comparing the renewable fuel to its petroleum counterpart no longer leave industry professionals waiting in breathless anticipation for results. That's shouldn't detract from the fact that studies completed to date-hundreds of them perhaps-have added to the industry's collective knowledge base, particularly in the area of emissions reductions, performance, engine compatibility and operating costs. And by and large, the work has only begun.

Now, the University of Toledo's Intermodal Transpiration Institute (ITI) and the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) in Ohio are partnering up to take a closer look at utilizing a relatively high biodiesel blend-B20. Although it's not the first study of B20, the institute is venturing into new territory in a couple of key areas.

For the next three years, ITI will examine B20 use in certain TARTA buses. Specifically, the study will examine emissions, engine performance, engine wear, operating costs and in-bus air quality for passengers, says Stephen Atkinson, director of marketing for TARTA.

A total of 48 TARTA buses have been identified for the study, 24 of which will be fueled with ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) and the remaining 24 with B20 (a ULSD blend).

Funding from the grant was also used to install an on-site biofueling station at TARTA, which went into use March 6. The study is funded through a $1.5 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant awarded through the efforts of Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. "I have a very clear goal of helping America and my community become energy independent as quickly as possible by replacing imported petroleum with renewable energy, especially biofuels," Kaptur tells Biodiesel Magazine.

The congresswoman backs biodiesel-and the TARTA endeavor specifically-for a variety of reasons, although, reducing emissions that impact air quality is perhaps her chief concern. "Toledo has been under a clean air warning for a number of years and we're looking at different ways of cleaning the air," Kaptur says.

Of course, TARTA's motivation for using and evaluating B20 is the hope that the fuel will reduce in-bus pollution, increasing passenger health and safety. "We have the answer, and it's growing out there," Atkinson says of biodiesel production. "We have it, and we just have to put it to best use." Officials at TARTA, which serves nine communities in the Toledo area, also know the United States can't forever depend totally on petroleum, much of which is imported. To that end, TARTA officials view biodiesel as a fuel extender that may be a vital necessity to the nation's mass transit needs of the future. "We're very exited about taking part in this," Atkinson says. "Of course, we're not the first to do it and we're not the only one doing it, but in my mind biofuels are the answer to the woes of other fleet owners or other transit authorities." The city of Toledo is also participating in the study to a lesser extent. However, Bill Franklin, the city's director of public service, says using biofuels is something city officials are interested in pursuing on a larger scale. For now, five refuse packers and five dump trucks will be fueling up with B20 at TARTA's fueling station.

If the pilot project is successful, the city could expand its B20 use to all of its 1,000 diesel vehicles, which make up about half of the city's total fleet, Franklin says. To increase the economic viability of such a project, it could be expanded to include Lucas County, area school district vehicles and others interested in joining up. In general, the more people using biodiesel, the more impact it will make, both environmentally and economically. "We assume, with greater demand for [biodiesel blends], the cost will come down," Franklin says.

Fuel specifics
The biodiesel TARTA is using in its B20 is derived from both soybean oil and yellow grease, primarily from recycled cooking oil from restaurants. Utilizing cooking oil from area restaurants is something Kaptur has been pushing for. Some restaurants currently pay to have the used grease hauled away, not realizing they have something that could be a valuable asset. By including the use of what is a relatively high blend of biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil in the study, researchers and participants will get a better picture of the feedstock's viability. "The question would be, could we collect it more systematically? Could we reprocess it more systematically and use it for the public benefit?" Kaptur says.

The fact that ULSD will be blended with biodiesel jumps ahead of a U.S. EPA rule that phases out low-sulfur diesel by 2010. Beginning June 1, at least 80 percent of all highway diesel produced by refineries must contain less than 15 parts per million sulfur, with the deadline for terminals and retail outlets set for Oct. 15, according to an EPA spokeswoman. By May 31, 2010, all highway diesel must fit those requirements.

It just made sense for TARTA to make the changeover early with the buses selected for the study, Atkinson says, explaining that the transit authority didn't want to initiate the switch under pressure.

Comparing ULSD to ULSD-based B20 is significant, according to Mark Vonderembse, ITI director. It distinguishes the study from others he's seen, which look at low-sulfur diesel and biodiesel.

Steve Howell, National Biodiesel Board technical director, says there are other fleets already using ULSD. However, he confirmed that there just isn't a lot of hard data yet on what that means for the transportation industry.

Environment and economics
On the emissions side of the equation, the study will look at tailpipe emissions as well as internal air quality in the buses. Students will use equipment to take readings of the levels of emissions such as NOx, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, Vonderembse says. A minor part of the study includes an analysis of how biodiesel made from different feedstocks effects emissions data.

The larger focus of this part of the study will be emissions readings inside the buses. The hope is that blending biodiesel with diesel will add up to a quality-of-life benefit for those in the vehicles. "Clearly if that's the case, then this makes it very attractive not only for transit authorities, but also for school districts and other transit activities that burn diesel and haul people," Vonderembse says.

Kaptur, for one, is particularly excited about the air quality portion of the study, calling it a first of its kind. While biodiesel has a more pleasant cooking oil smell, diesel creates air quality issues for both bus passengers and city residents. Breathing diesel fumes over a long period of time also negatively impacts the health of workers at TARTA and city garages. "So the air-quality issue is important from the standpoint of passengers, from the standpoint of city residents [and] surely for those people who service these vehicles," Kaptur says.

Howell confirms that there really aren't any strong scientific studies out there on in-bus air quality. "That's new," he says. "That's never been done."
Researchers will spend an equal amount of time looking at the economic factor, or how using a biodiesel blend will impact engine performance, engine wear and operating costs. "On the surface, you still have a cost penalty for using [B20]," Vonderembse says. "It costs more per gallon than diesel [and particularly] ultra-low-sulfur diesel. So what we're trying to determine is, are there offsetting savings associated with it, such as extending the life of the vehicle, [or] extending maintenance. [For example, maybe] you don't have to do engine rebuilds as quickly [or] have as much money in maintenance costs."

A local company, Shrader Tire and Oil, will complete free oil testing after each oil change. ITI will analyze the data to determine what impact, if any, B20 has on engine wear when compared to diesel.

Ultimately, one of the chief goals of the study is to determine the total lifecycle costs of a vehicle powered by B20. To that end, 10 of the buses that will be running on biodiesel blends are new. Those vehicles, 10 Blue Bird buses powered by Cummins engines, will run on B20 from the beginning, with virtually no straight diesel used in them. "So we can have a pretty accurate estimate of what the costs of maintenance would be and what the engine life would be between those biodiesel vehicles and the regular diesel vehicles," Vonderembse says.

The other buses in the study, 38 DaimlerChrysler buses with Mercedes Benz engines, are not new. The fact that those buses have been powered by diesel and are now going to be using B20 is interesting to researchers. ITI has heard anecdotally that switching to biodiesel blends initially means higher emissions as the engines get cleaned out, leading to increased filter changes and higher costs, he says. However, this study will take into consideration the longer-term impacts, something that isn't currently known.

Overall, the results of the comprehensive study on biodiesel could have far-reaching affects. If the results show that B20 is an economically and environmentally sound solution, private organizations such as trucking companies or other transportation companies may be more interested in jumping on the biodiesel bandwagon. "If we can demonstrate in this kind of application that, in total, the cost of using biofuels is the same or possibly less than using straight diesel fuel, then we can convince commercial applications," Vonderembse says.

Injecting power
In another partnership, ITI and TARTA have also teamed up with H2 Engine Systems, a small Ohio-based company, to learn more about using hydrogen as a power source with biodiesel blends. One TARTA mini-bus has been modified so hydrogen can be combined in the air intake system of the bus engine. "What we're looking at is showing the benefits of using hydrogen in conjunction with B20," Atkinson says. "The expectation is to show improved performance and improved miles per gallon."

Though it's a small part of the overall study, John Everton, president of H2 Engine Systems, says looking at the results of burning hydrogen and biodiesel in conventional engines is cutting edge. Previous studies have focused on the use of hydrogen and straight diesel. "To my knowledge, nobody has taken that and put it into biodiesel applications," he says.

The company, which was set up originally to develop hydrogen engine applications, expects an estimated 2 percent to 4 percent of hydrogen will be burned along with the B20. The results of the study will be best applicable to fleet vehicles rather than retail passenger vehicles due to the logistics of utilizing hydrogen as fuel.
At some point in the study, Everton hopes to increase the biodiesel ratio to B50 and B100. Since burning B100 means a reduction in power, the hope is that adding hydrogen to the mix will have a positive effect on power output. "It may have no effect at all on B100," he says, "We'll have to wait and see."

Holly Jessen is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at hjessen@bbibiofuels.comor (701) 746-8385.
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