Biodiesel tests reveal off-spec fuel in U.S. market

By | January 10, 2007
A study designed to evaluate the quality of biodiesel being marketed in the United States was released in November. The study revealed that inconsistencies in fuel quality continue to be a major issue for the biodiesel industry.

A national fuel quality testing project, cofunded by the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), tested 32 B100 samples between November 2005 and July 2006. According to Teresa Alleman, an NREL scientist who led the study, 16 samples-or 50 percent-fell short in at least one category of the ASTM D 6751 specification. She said some samples failed on multiple properties, with the most typical infractions involving flashpoint or total glycerin. Thirty percent failed to meet flashpoint, and 33 percent failed in total glycerin, she explained.

The samples were randomly collected by a subcontractor from each of the five Petroleum Administration of Defense Districts (PADDs). Each was a one-time sample from a unique location-generally from distributors-Alleman said. More samples were taken from the Midwest region to reflect that area's greater production volume. However, Alleman stressed that the samples weren't based on national production volumes and aren't necessarily indicative of biodiesel volumes. Thus, she said, the results may not be representative of the biodiesel that is out there by volume.

"As an industry, [this study is] a wake-up call that every producer needs to be vigilant about quality control," said Leland Tong, chairman of the National Biodiesel Accreditation Commission. "To me, it shows the importance of in-process quality control and testing of the finished product as it leaves the plant. Every production lot of fuel should be tested before it leaves the plant-no exception."

Since the origin of study sample is unknown, it is also unknown if the off-spec samples came from plants with quality control programs. "A quality control program is only as good as the company that's implementing it," Tong said. "If the company that's implementing the system doesn't do what they're supposed to do, it doesn't matter what system they use."

In addition to the NBB/NREL study, Denver-based Blue Sun Biodiesel performed an internal multi-year market research effort within the western United States to develop its own products. Blue Sun wouldn't provide the exact numbers or terms of the study, but according to a company press release, it "estimates that more than 60 percent of the biodiesel produced in the U.S. today does not meet minimum ASTM specifications."

Tong said one reason why some producers may not be testing consistently is because of the expense. "They don't think they can afford to, but they can't afford not to," he said. "There's also pressure to get product out the door to maintain cash flow. They want to do the right thing, but there are economic pressures and they overestimate their abilities to produce on-spec product on every production lot."

Alleman told Biodiesel Magazine that early indicator tests are being developed to tell a producer in advance if the fuel is likely to meet specifications once tested with the ASTM test method. Nevertheless, Tong said the expense of testing isn't an excuse to avoid it. "That's the cost of doing business," he said. "If we as an industry don't police ourselves and companies don't do what they need to do, our industry will suffer, falter and sputter for years until we can get some of these issues worked out."
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