Talking Point

Product Quality is No Accident
By Joel Glatz | March 01, 2005
It's no secret that the biodiesel industry is expanding rapidly. New production facilities are being opened in all regions of the country, more terminal operators and petroleum marketers are getting involved, and the recently passed federal tax provisions will sharply increase the demand for biodiesel and biodiesel-heating oil blends, or bioheat.

This presents many opportunities for both established and new companies to get in on the ground floor of a dynamic and profitable industry that has the added benefit of having a positive impact on society. While this rapid acceleration creates opportunities, it can also cause growing pains within some parts of the industry. When a company enters the marketplace or vastly expands its level of operations, there is a learning curve that must be experienced. With this in mind, good research and seeking out reliable guidance becomes important. Also, ensuring product quality with regular testing, followed by proper storage, handling and blending procedures is vital.

Enough cannot be said about the importance of product testing. Everyone expects that producers regularly test their product to verify that it meets ASTM specifications, but once the production process is established, the entire range of tests are not required to be done on every batch. Mistakes occasionally happen, and just as "good fences make good neighbors," it is also extremely important that the wholesaler or marketer who receives the product has tests performed on each shipment before it is released for sale. It is much easier-and less embarrassing-to contain a problem before it has left the shop than to try to fix things after it has been distributed further downstream. It may not be necessary to perform the complete ASTM range of tests, but some basic testing (e.g., acid, free and total glycerin, bottom sediment, etc.) should be done to ensure product quality.

There are many labs across the country that can reliably perform these tests. The cost of a range of basic tests generally will not exceed a few hundred dollars-an overhead cost that must be budgeted order to guarantee consistent product quality. When the test results are received, it is a good idea to keep a copy, along with an additional sample of the tested product, for a period of time to guard against claims of poor quality by those who are downstream.

After biodiesel is received and tested, it needs to be stored and handled properly. Like Goldilocks' porridge, it must not be too hot or too cold. It is important to constantly scrutinize the flow of product through the facility to verify adherence to temperature guidelines. It must also be remembered that biodiesel made from different feedstocks will have different low-temperature characteristics. What works well with soy-based biodiesel may not work so well with fuel made from recycled oils or animal fats. Product blending procedures need to be implemented that provide uniformity and consistent quality. A recent study of retail B20 blends revealed an alarming number of samples that ranged from B2 to B100, and relatively few that were actually B20. No doubt, this is more a symptom of inattention and poor operating procedures than unscrupulous business practices, but it illustrates the importance of implementing and adhering to proper handling guidelines.

As this young market matures and more companies get involved, product handling doesn't have to be a trial-and-error process. With some imagination, adherence to good housekeeping habits doesn't have to be expensive. Guidelines and procedures are in place. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has an excellent publication on the handling and use of biodiesel that is available online at For a company that is new to the biodiesel market, hiring a qualified consultant with experience in your segment of the industry can help avoid many pitfalls. In addition, the National Biodiesel Board's BQ-9000 quality assurance program can provide guidance.

If everyone involved in the industry is diligent with product testing and handling, the end result will be happy users and continued profits for farms, businesses and the planet.

Joel Glatz is vice president of Frontier Energy, a wholesale and retail biodiesel sales and consulting company based in Maine. Reach him by e-mail at [email protected].
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