B20: The Best of Both Worlds

Vehicles under warranty by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to use B20 could claim "flex-fuel" status soon. A new U.S. EPA ruling provides incentives to OEM fleets that build B20 models such as Ford's Super Duty 350, which will be equipped to handle the blend beginning in 2011. Also, because of its characteristics as a blended fuel, some producers are seeing increased demand.
By Nicholas Zeman | November 20, 2009
Several developments are underway that anticipate B20 becoming a much more ubiquitous blend in the retail and on-road fuel markets. New products from Chevron Oronite Co. LLC, Ford Motor Co., New Holland NV and others indicate that major industrial forces are accepting the fact that biodiesel will have an increased role in transportation fuel needs in the coming years. There are still barriers, however, to the proliferation of B20, and infrastructure needs are stunting the blend's growth.

The U.S. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration presented the biodiesel industry with a considerable opportunity in September. Previously, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act provided an incentive under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program for production of dual-fueled vehicles, or flexible fuel vehicles (FFV) and dedicated alternative fuel vehicles (AFV), but biodiesel-fueled vehicles were not included-until now.

"We see it as a positive that fleets will get corporate average fuel economy credits for using biodiesel," says Gary Parsons of Chevron Oronite, which recently introduced an engine oil additive for biodiesel. This "historic national program" was outlined in a 1,200 page proposal published in September. EPA is proposing that FFV and AFV credits be calculated as part of the manufacturer's overall fleet average fuel economy, which could also help minimize fleet average carbon-related exhaust emissions. Notably, the proposed rule would treat B20-compatible models as "flex-fuel vehicles," similar to the ethanol/gas motors already receiving benefits.

In August, U.S. DOE Secretary Steven Chu announced the selection of 25 cost-share projects under the Clean Cities program that will be funded with nearly $300 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "These projects will speed the transformation of the nation's vehicle fleet, putting more than 9,000 alternative fuel and energy efficient vehicles on the road, and establishing 542 refueling locations across the country," DOE stated.

Trotec Fuel Management LLC was recently selected by Clean Cities to negotiate the distribution of funds set aside to assist in the opening of 30 E85 and B20 stations throughout Florida, Alabama and Georgia. This project will provide E85 and B20 every 200 miles or less, enabling drivers to travel from Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., to Miami using only alternative fuel.

"The on-road passenger vehicle market for B20 is the fastest growing," says Robert Dascal, Houston regional sales manager for the Renewable Energy Group Inc.

In other developments, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's new TransAtlas interactive map tool makes connections between diesel vehicle density by region and the availability of biodiesel refueling stations in the area so that entrepreneurs can decide where the best places to install new stations or terminals might be. Kinder Morgan has announced the successful pipeline transport of biodiesel, and other regional and local efforts are also on point to increase the B20 infrastructure.
Terminal infrastructure, however, is a limiting factor in distributing B20, NREL says. There are currently no UL listed storage tanks or dispensers for blends higher than B5, but most appear compatible with B20 already. DOE says that are currently 697 biodiesel fueling stations in the United States, 50 percent of which are open to the public. "The biodiesel market so far has been driven by economics," Parsons said. "Customers might want to support the environment and the local economy, but when it comes to a premium price, they don't necessarily want to pay at the pump. So the new federal programs will definitely expand the biodiesel market."

Big Players
Chevron Oronite, subsidiary of the mega oil company, continuously works with OEMs to produce stable "fuel atmospheres" for vehicles. Parsons, industry liaison for Chevron Oronite, says the company often must be able to "look into a crystal ball" and predict patterns in fuel usage, along with the challenges associated with major changes. "In talks, especially with Japanese and European OEMs, we saw biodiesel playing a much larger role," Parsons says. "There's a perception that we might be anti-biofuels, but we see biodiesel not as a threat, but an opportunity."

Ford has focused its efforts on providing the essential material compatibility needed to burn biodiesel at higher blends. "I can't tell you too much about what materials we've used [in the SuperDuty] because that is getting into the area of giving away trade secrets, which could provide our competitors with an advantage," Ford engineer Adam Gryglak tells Biodiesel Magazine.

"That's been the largest portion of our work, assuring that the materials are compatible with B20." Testing methods involved exposing materials to an oxidized batch of fuel-what Gryglak calls "aggressive biodiesel"-under pressure and elevated temperatures. "We've learned a lot," he says. "For instance, we've found that different zinc alloys have not fared well with biodiesel."

Mineral diesel forms acids too, but it's sulfuric acid, which interacts with metals in different ways than materials formed when biodiesel is combusted, having a higher boiling point than mineral diesel. "We've spent a lot of time and energy on that," Gryglak says. Chevron's additive works to neutralize the organic acids and minerals that can form deposits. Biodiesel does not evaporate and can remain in the crank case. Also, because of the hydrophilic characteristics of biodiesel, water can build up. "Fuel systems don't like that," Gryglak said. "So we also have a water switch that tells drivers they might have a problem."

After a lot of research and testing in this area, Chrysler Group LLC, General Motors Corp. and Ford-the Big Three of American auto manufacturers-have now all approved B20 blends under their warranties. GM's 2011 model year 2500 and 3500 Silverado and Sierra pickups can run on B20 under warranty, said Dave Barthmuss, spokesman for GM. Along with the upgrades to the lines, seals and fittings required for the B20 fuel, GM has avoided post-injection of diesel fuel in the cylinder, in favor of injecting the fuel directly into the exhaust to purge the soot that collects in the diesel particulate filter (DPF). This approach obviously decreases the fuel dilution potential related to post-injection.

New Holland, the heavy equipment OEM has also begun production of B20-approved tractors for certain agricultural applications. The series is composed of three models, all with four-wheel drive as standard, featuring 69, 76 and 84 horsepower systems fully compatible with B20. "The more products that are available and the more drivers see emblems on vehicles that say 'B20 approved,' the more use we're going to get out of it," Dascal says. John Deere and Caterpillar have also approved B20 for use in some models.

"Several French auto manufacturers are also working on engines that are suitable to burn blends as high as 30 percent biodiesel," says Falk Von Kreigsheim of Germany's Petrotec AG. "Blends higher than seven percent are currently prohibited [in the EU] but there are efforts to approve blends up to 30 percent, although those are far off on the horizon."

What blends are sold at the rack isn't really determined by biodiesel producers. It is the terminals and other distributors that decide what blends to offer as a result of demand. The fact is that most petroleum distributors offer only B5, B10 or B20 blends. "We are seeing increased sales of B20," Dascal says. "Added lubricity combined with some of the emissions reductions benefits, fleet operators are seeing the benefits of higher blends."

"The work to get this specification"-the stand alone B6 to B20 blend spec-"in place came at the request of the OEMs," Dascal says, adding that REG works to ensure that the fuel it produces does not only meet but exceeds quality standards.

"Great strides have been made in approving B20, but there is still the opportunity to get a bad batch of fuel," Gryglak says. "So we introduced a low pressure supply switch." When biodiesel gels at cold temperatures, fuel pressure drops. The switch notifies drivers that there might be a problem. "We have to make sure that these meet our 10 years of service/250,000 mile warranty," Gryglak says.

The official comment period regarding the implementation of RFS2 is officially closed, and the EPA's final rule should be announced around Thanksgiving, says Kevin Carroll of Illinois' Growmark Inc. "This will be very good for the increased use of biodiesel," he says. In addition, companies such as Chevron and Ford counting on increased levels of biodiesel in future applications is a positive sign that the industry may be turning a corner. "Seeing some of the larger players in the economy start to get on board is definitely good," Carroll says.

Nicholas Zeman is an associate editor for Biodiesel Magazine. Reach him at (701) 738-4972 or [email protected].
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