Winter-Grade Biodiesel

An ASTM ballot to create a new grade of biodiesel is in the final stages, but not everyone is hopeful for the same result.
By Luke Geiver | October 25, 2010
For anyone who has spent time in Northern Minnesota during the frigid, white days of winter, one thing becomes clear: cold weather causes problems. Engines start slowly, windows freeze shut, and in a few, isolated incidents, above-ground biodiesel and petrodiesel tank dispenser filters get clogged above the fuel's cloud point, due to what could be called "the freezer effect." Spend a day sitting inside a deep freeze and you get the point. In an effort to help biodiesel producers and purchasers operate vehicles and machinery in such extreme conditions, ASTM is currently voting on a measure to create two grades of biodiesel, one of which would be specifically suited for those extreme winter days. Some in the industry favor the dual grades, noting the additional biodiesel option as a benefit to consumers. But others oppose the idea, citing confusion to those same consumers as a reason to continue the status quo. The ballot is currently at the main committee level and the results are expected sometime in December.

Reasons to Vote

Along with a few reports from BP and ExxonMobil, Steve Howell, technical director for the National Biodiesel Board, says during the past year in Minnesota the current D6751 spec worked for "just about everybody." But, he says, "There were a couple of isolated incidents where biodiesel fuel didn't operate down to its cloud point." The reason for the clogging, at least what ASTM has indicated, was the monoglyceride content in the biodiesel. Because the majority of the incidents were mainly tank and dispenser filter related, Howell says the group (ASTM members, who are also government officials, biodiesel producers, users and members of academia) believes that if there are known cases of minor components in filters, then remaining in the fungible diesel fuel pool requires giving an option to help resolve the issue.

The new option would provide a No. 1 and a No. 2 grade similar to petro diesel, which features Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6. "The proposed grade No. 2 would be the current specs we have now," Howell says. "But if for some reason that No. 2 grade biodiesel doesn't operate down to its cloud point, then the group has proposed a No. 1 grade, and that No. 1 grade would have tighter controls on minor components."

The Issues

"A mandate does not happen in a vacuum," said Ralph Groschen, senior marketing specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, when he spoke during a webinar on the problems that occurred and the experience that was gained in Minnesota, the first state to pass a biodiesel mandate. And this concept-that other outside variables not considered within the realm of possibilities may ultimately be the cause of an "incident"-represents one sticking point for those considering the dual grades. "The particular way we chose to address these minor components was to use saturated monoglycerides as an indicator for all other minor components that could show this phenomenon in rare circumstances," Howell says. But, he adds, there are still desires to move to a more performance-based test rather than using one set of compounds as a surrogate for a whole bunch of others. "That," he says, "is the crux of the issue," as some disagree that monoglyceride levels should be the only factor to test for or change in the new grade.

While the new No. 1 grade would call for lower monoglyceride levels, Stu Porter, director for BBI Biofuels Canada, says the limits in the manner proposed are maybe not the best approach and seem to be somewhat subjective. "The proposed limits are built on a series of assumptions that estimate saturated monoglyceride content. This assumes that saturated monoglycerides are the root cause." For Porter, the amount of evidence supporting the idea that a multigrade biodiesel specification is needed is insufficient. ASTM is operating under the agreement, Howell says, however, that the research, data and evidence presented during the balloting process at the subcommittee level is the most accurate and complete package of information. Randy Jennings of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture says, "When you can positively identify the reasons for those problems and those problems can be corrected by amended fuel specifications, I think it is entirely appropriate to pursue those specifications."

The procurement specifications that are already in place and used by petroleum companies may, however, already present an answer to the level of monoglycerides allowed and the resulting issues ASTM has identified. "The reality is that many of the refiners in the U.S. have a limit of 0.8 percent (monoglycerides) in the summer and 0.5 percent for some refiners and 0.4 percent for others in the winter, already in their procurement specs," Porter says. "In a sense, the petroleum companies are already finding a common way to address the issue through their procurement specs." He adds that this seems to be a much more sensible approach, and can minimize market confusion.

Apart from fuel specifications created by the particular testing method ASTM proposes, or the individual minor component to be tested for, the two-grade possibility may indeed present confusion. "There are already issues in the marketplace in just how to price biodiesel," Porter says, "and there is already a great deal of trading confusion. Although this seems like a short-term solution, it seems that it may result in a more long-term problematic outcome." Jennings seems to agree on the possibility. "Someone not understanding why the new grades may be added could potentially cause a little confusion as to which fuel is best suited for each application."

It is possible, Jennings adds, that some producers, who may not really understand the specifications and the reason that the new grades were added, may think this new grade is the highest grade fuel, and the result would create a buyer who wants a No. 1 grade but doesn't need it. Howell says this new grade makes sense for a lot of reasons, but the most important thing "is giving people the confidence to use biodiesel in any condition they want." For Howell, along with consumer confidence, one of the main factors many in favor of the ballot see as a positive is the lack of requirement for a user to use either No. 1 or No. 2. "You can use whichever one you choose depending on your local conditions," he says.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, producers may have their own issues to deal with as well. Because the proposed new grade would tighten monoglyceride levels, producers using tallow or yellow grease would have to adjust production methods in order to make the No. 1 grade. "Any producer using a TME or even yellow grease," Porter says, "would have to use distillation as part of their process. And this would not be necessary for other feedstocks." According to Porter, there are more producers using tallow or yellow grease as opposed to soy, in comparison to four years ago. But Howell says the added grade will simply allow the marketplace do its job figuring out which one is really needed. "Every time we make a spec change it is important to the industry," he says, adding, "I kind of view it as biodiesel really starting to mature as an industry and to become accepted within the petroleum industry infrastructure. It's something very few other alternative fuels have been able to do."

Next Steps

If the main committee votes yes, then the multigrade spec will be passed. If the vote is no, then it won't, and those in favor of the measure will go back to the drawing board to adjudicate the negatives. As Howell notes, along with consumer confidence, the petroleum sector's confidence in biodiesel is also a positive. If the ballot passes, it won't pass simply on the judgment of the biodiesel producers or users. "At ASTM you have the petroleum guys, the biodiesel guys and the engine guys all sitting down at the same table, and it's really a team effort," Howell says. The team effort will hopefully result in a system that can implement another fuel grade, much in the same vein as the petroleum industry has done in the past, and because the biodiesel industry may be following in the footsteps of the petroleum industry, the relationships between the two may benefit, according to Howell.

"I think this is probably the fairest way ASTM could address this particular issue," Jennings says. But, Howell points out, "Even in really, really cold weather in International Falls, Minn., they are using No. 2, biodiesel and not having a problem. Why should they have to go to a different fuel when what they are using is working fine for them?" For some, those frigid days do create problems, as ASTM has documented, but the question is whether an isolated incident is important enough to create another grade of biodiesel. For the answer, check back this winter.

Luke Geiver is a Biodiesel Magazine associate editor. Reach him at (701) 738-4944 or [email protected]
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