Two Million-Mile Road Trip

When asked if they use biodiesel in their trucks, most fleet managers and over-the-road drivers will say that they want to use the renewable fuel, but they haven't seen enough evidence that proves the fuel is good for their engines. Decker Truck Line Inc. has taken the lead in that department, pioneering the nation's first comprehensive on-road study.
By Bryan Sims | April 25, 2007
Biodiesel has been tested extensively in laboratory environments to evaluate its specific properties related to viscosity and lubricity when applied to truck engines within the fleet industry. Unfortunately, the testing procedures are performed in controlled environments.

"They can try to limit the variables all they want but it's still a laboratory," says Dale Decker, industry and government relations director for Decker Truck Line Inc. (DTL). The Fort Dodge, Iowa-based company has a venerable reputation in the fleet industry with more than 700 trucks and over 1,400 trailers, with nine terminals in five states. DTL trucks travel throughout the United States and southern Canada.

Decker, a third-generation trucker in the family-owned business, discovered biodiesel several years ago. The more he learned about it, the more he wanted to learn how to apply the biofuel to see if it would benefit his company. Eventually, he found a way to align his interests in biodiesel with the fleet industry by conducting one of the nation's first comprehensive on-road fuel studies. The test is designed to help substantiate the performance of soybean-based B20 versus petroleum-based diesel and to provide verifiable information to the fleet industry.

The study, dubbed the Two Million Mile Haul was announced in October 2006, and as of March, the trucks had accumulated 350,000 miles. A total of 20 trucks are participating in the study-10 using soybean-based B20 (the variable group) and 10 running on regular petroleum diesel (the control group). The two-year study calls for the trucks to travel 2 million miles.

All of the trucks are over-the-road Class 8 models, each is carrying the same freight, traversing identical round-trip routes from either Fort Dodge to Minneapolis or Fort Dodge to Chicago. To minimize driver-to-driver variability, the company switches drivers to different trucks from the control group and the variable group. The only remaining variable is the type of fuel that's being used.

In order for the study to reach its peak potential, DTL chose reliable partners to help meet its goal of releasing plausible information-a crucial component of the test. With that in mind, the company assembled a team of experts from the technical, scientific, mechanical and industrial fields to assess and evaluate data gathered during the real-world experiment.

The company partnered with the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), the National Biodiesel Board (NBB), the USDA, Iowa Central Community College (ICCC), Caterpillar Inc. and Renewable Energy Group (REG). All partnering entities play active roles in the collaborative effort initiated by DTL.

The trucks that DTL is using in the study are Caterpillar-powered Peterbilt 379, 388 and 389 tractors with mostly flatbed trucks. The trucks are running on either Caterpillar's C13 or C15 2006-'07 engines built to U.S. EPA 2007 emissions standards. Caterpillar is tasked with gathering technical information periodically throughout the study and analyzing the effects that B20 has on the trucks. The Peoria, Ill.-based company is examining all the oil samples that DTL collects from its trucks and is checking for metals, wear and other free radicals that would impede performance during the study. Decker says he's optimistic that the new Caterpillar engines will sustain optimal performance while running on B20 compared with petroleum diesel during the test. "With having to run on ULSD (ultra-low sulfur diesel), there's so much less lubricity, which is ridiculous," Decker says. "Even a B2 blend of biodiesel brings the lubricity back up like 60 percent. With the ULSD, you actually exceed the recommended wear scar, but by using biodiesel, you almost cut your wear scars in half."

Throughout the winter months, the DTL trucks have had no significant performance issues due to the fuel usage. DTL attributes this to the NBB's extensive work in finding high-quality fuel that is properly handled and treated to help biodiesel perform in cold weather conditions. So far, conclusions during the study include: cleaner engine oil, a positive impact on engine wear, decreased maintenance due to increased lubricity and no cold weather issues despite the frigid temperatures that hovered over the Midwest during the winter months.

Tom Verry, director of outreach and development for the NBB, says the study is welcomed by the fleet industry. "It's something [those in the fleet industry] all have been waiting to see," he says. "Now we'll have something to show them. We really appreciate DTL's leadership in this, and we're glad to be a part of it."

REG is supplying the B20 fuel for the test. The company, based in Ralston, Iowa, builds and manages biodiesel plants and procures feedstocks for third parties and markets the end product. REG also has several partner biodiesel plants throughout Iowa and southern Minnesota.

"Our staff has been involved with the DTL team, the ICCC team, and the education and hands-on health of blending the B20 fuel for the haul," says REG Communications Specialist Alicia Clancy. "We also help arrange the availability so that they can get our product along the routes so that the test can be run more efficiently."

DTL did experience some fuel filter clogging issues due to the self-blending of the fuel, as opposed to using professionally blended fuel. Decker noted this should help other fleet companies and independent truckers avoid the same drawback. Decker emphasized that this pitfall is being addressed.

Grant Kimberley, director of market development for the ISA, assumed the role of coordinator and facilitator for the project. He says that many trucking companies, independent truckers, government agencies and other original equipment manufacturers will value DTL's accurate findings once the test is concluded. "The trucking industry wants to see data from real-world applications," Kimberley says. "While the laboratory data is necessary and very good and important, for some of these commercial fleets that's not enough. [The fleet industry] would like to see it proven in real-world applications, and this is one of those applications where it is very significant."

The project wouldn't have been possible without financial support. The USDA's rural development branch is interested in helping to fund and promote the project, but funding hadn't been finalized at press time. Due to ethical and confidential issues, Decker couldn't disclose any further details in regard to the USDA's possible financial involvement.

An Organized Approach
For Decker, the goal of this comprehensive on-road study is simple-to provide the fleet market with a solid base for making sound decisions when using biodiesel in their trucks. "The main thing is we need to get credible information out there to the people [of the fleet industry and media], and not just the rumors or false information that has been circulating in the market," he says. "We're going to get [the information] out there and tell people what we're actually finding. Once people get our truthful and accurate information from our test to make a decision, it's a no-brainer."

DTL collects data from its trucks through a complex Qualcomm satellite system and sends it on to ICCC to be configured and analyzed. The university is responsible for collecting the quantifiable data while stabilizing factors related to miles per gallon, total miles accumulated, average speed, maximum speed and idle time, along with cost analysis, engine maintenance and visual emissions, according to Don Heck, program coordinator for the biotechnology and biofuels technology programs at ICCC. Heck will disseminate the appropriate information most likely through a trade journal when the demonstration is complete.

Currently, Heck is conducting several tests related to different commercial formulations of additives. One of them in particular, he explains, is administrating a "plug-point test"-a type of cold-flow test that determines at what temperatures different blends of fuels crystallize at the point where the fuel filter can't draw fuel through it any longer. Determining minute details of this nature will deliver positive and long-lasting results that people in the fleet industry can rely on, Heck says. "By the end of the study, we want to come up with some sort of protocol that essentially says we found these additives mixed at these concentrations under these temperatures are going to give you the best results," Heck says. "There are a lot of variables. We're just taking a systematic approach to try and work out some of those issues." While data has fluctuated due to substantial driver-to-driver variability and extensive idle time during winter months, test results are within the margin of error, Heck says. Official results on mileage and efficiency will not be made available to the public until the Two Million Mile Haul is over.

In order to keep fleet executives, independent truckers and truck media abreast of the most current and up-to-date information DTL, ICCC and the ISA have created a Web site that features blogs, questionnaires and surveys for those interested in the progression of the test. "It's just important to demonstrate to the trucking industry that biodiesel can work and that, along the way, we can collect some more data and hopefully compile the results using biodiesel," Kimberley says.

For more information on the Two Million Mile Haul, visit

Bryan Sims is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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