Tests prove biodiesel doesn't negatively impact railcar linings

By Erin Voegele | February 10, 2009
VTG Rail UK, one of Europe's leading rail logistics and wagon hire companies, recently announced the results of a study that aimed to determine the effects of B5 on the lining and components of railcars. The study, completed in partnership with two lining manufacturers, concluded that the fuels caused no adverse effects.

Immersion tests were used to complete part of the study. "Essentially what we did is take some samples of 5 percent biodiesel and immersed samples of two lining materials from the two manufacturers in [the B5] for a period of about six or seven months," said Paul Lugg, VTG's tank fleet car manager. "We discovered that apart from a little bit of minor discoloration there didn't seem to be any softening of the lining of the material."

VTG is conducting similar immersion tests on railcar components such as seals and gaskets. "We've still got them immersed in the product, but so far there have been no signs of any negative effects," Lugg said.

In addition to the immersion tests, VTG studied railcars that had already been transporting biodiesel. "We know one of our customers had actually been moving biodiesel for about three years in wagons lined with one of these particular materials," Lugg said. "We took one of those wagons out of service, and went inside and examined it. We found that there was no evidence of any softening of the lining material."

There were a few areas where the lining had been discolored, however. Lugg said the discoloration is likely due to the way the linings were installed. "If there were any minor imperfections with the lining material, we had to overcoat it," he said. "That overcoated area tends to be prone to a bit of discoloration, whereas the stuff that was sprayed on the first time around was fine."

Due to the positive results of the study, Lugg said VTG has approved the shipment of B5 in its railcars. The company plans to conduct further testing to ensure that its railcars can handle higher concentrations of biodiesel, such as those necessary to meet a European Union directive that requires member states to increase the amount of biobased additives in transportation fuels to 15 percent by 2020. "There may be an increase in concentration, and we want to try to keep ahead of the game and get ahold of some higher-concentration fuels as they become available so we can test our linings," Lugg said.

VTG completed this testing as a preventative measure, seeking to avoid many of the problems that have resulted from changing fuel components in the past, Lugg said. When the fuel industry replaced leaded fuel with unleaded fuel that contained methyl tertiary butyl ether, for example, the transportation industry experienced problems with the seals and gaskets on railcars. The seals swelled, which caused leaks. "It took a few months to establish that it was actually the additives being put in the petrol that was causing the problem," Lugg said. "We had to change the specification of all the gaskets and seals." This included changing the material the seals were made from. "When we discovered that some of our customers were starting to move biodiesel, we thought we'd better get it through a similar sort of exercise to make sure we don't have a problem looming on the horizon," he said.

In the U.S., Renewable Energy Group Inc. completed similar testing of railcar lining material in 2005. However, the company tested the effects of B100, rather than B5. "We ran a test with metal that was treated with the lining material for a period of six weeks to two months," said Bill Neese, REG's director of transportation and logistics. "We continually soaked the lining in B100." Parallel tests were completed by an unnamed lining manufacturer. "What we found at both locations was that there wasn't any action whatsoever between biodiesel and the lining that was being selected to coat the interior of these cars," he said.

The lining material that REG tested, called placite, is an industrial-grade lining widely used in the chemical industry. "It's a baked-on lining that is applied when the cars are built," Neese said. "They bake it onto the interior of the car, so it's very durable, and it will last for years."

REG has been shipping biodiesel in lined railcars since 2005. Neese said the company began to explore the use of liners as a way to ensure the delivery of high-quality biodiesel.

Before 2005, the company used unlined carbon steel cars. "Rust was a continual problem in these cars up until the time we started applying linings to them," he said. The unlined cars tended to form rust after they were emptied. "There might be a two-week period where they are exposed to the air, and that was the period where we would see rust start to form on the sides of cars," Neese said. According to Dave Slade, REG's quality and technical service manager, the rusty tanks caused issues with the oxidative stability test required under ASTM D 6751. The use of lined railcars ensures that the biodiesel arrives at its destination in the same state it was loaded, Slade said.

While lined railcars offer many advantages to biodiesel producers, Neese said they aren't the standard used in the industry right now. It costs more than $5,000 to line each railcar. "We're not aware of anyone else that's requesting lined cars for the shipment of biodiesel," he said.
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