Von Wedel discusses biodiesel fuel quality issues at Calif. show

By Erin Voegele | January 17, 2012

Although the biodiesel industry is maturing, fuel quality is still a central issue. Randall von Wedel, principal biochemist with BioSolar Group and CytoCulture International Inc., closed the California Biodiesel & Renewable Diesel Conference in San Francisco with a discussion of fuel quality and its importance to expanding use of the fuel by fleets.

Von Wedel spoke about a negative experience he had several years ago where poor quality biodiesel resulted in the loss of nearly half a dozen trucks that were part of the Berkeley, Calif., fleet. That experience, along with personal experiences he had with subpar fuel, led von Wedel to develop a simple tool he describes as a visual firewall to help fleet managers identify low quality biodiesel. That led to the idea to develop a simple testing program, that when combined with the visual testing mechanism, would allow fleets to better monitor their fuel.

According to von Wedel, fuel quality issues can generally be divided into three categories; how fuel is produced at the plant, issues that occur during transportation and handling, and how the fuel is stored prior to use. While most problems are a simple nuisance, severe fuel quality problems can cause significant vehicle damage.

Regarding recent fuel tests, von Wedel said that of 27 samples of fuel he tested in 2011, 10 failed at least one component of the quality testing procedure he developed. He is careful to note, however, that this type of failure rate should not be associated with fuel in other parts of the country. Rather, it is a direct result of the type of fuel that has been offered to the fleets he works with. According to von Wedel, a lot of the lower quality fuel was offered by facilities that were just beginning operations or in some cases from plants that have historically had fuel quality issues to contend with. “If we weren’t vigilant, that fuel would have ended up in the storage tank of a city” or some other fleet user, von Wedel said.

Over the past seven years, von Wedel has compiled nearly 200 fuel quality reports, and a full 25 percent of them have failures. “About have of the failures turned out to be oxidation,” he said, which is a generally relatively easy problem to correct with antioxidants. “The good news is about half of the problems have been solved by diligence and by using additives,” he added. The remainder of the quality issues was generally the result of problems made at the plant level.

Von Wedel also noted how important it is to conduct comprehensive testing on a batch of fuel. He said that in one case, five railcars were supposed to be carrying identical fuel. They were, technically, but while three of the tanks were lined with epoxy, two were not. The result was that two of the five tanks ended up delivering severely degraded fuel to the end user. 


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