IT'S NOT unusual to stumble a bit before you hit your stride. That's how analysts are characterizing what happened in the booming biodiesel business this past December.

After a year of record industry growth in which production tripled (to 75 million gallons), the number of biodiesel plants grew to more than 50 nationwide, and the state of Minnesota passed the nation's first biodiesel mandate for B2 use, the racing industry had a bit of a charley horse. Several shipments of the soy oil-based product were “off spec,” containing high levels of glycerin that can cause problems for fuel lines. They made their way into diesel engines in Minnesota at the same time the state suffered its first winter cold snap. Truckers and some farmers quickly began to report clogged fuel filters, and biodiesel was blamed.

The issue was particularly noteworthy because Minnesota had enacted the B2 mandate only months before. State officials and biodiesel makers are still trying to sort out the exact cause of the problem. Although they recognize the bruise the experience gave the burgeoning industry, most agree they will learn from it and use it to improve quality-control measures. It also delivered some valuable lessons for biodiesel users.

Buy the right blend

Last fall, price became a major factor in producer demand for richer biodiesel blends. People were choosing B20 over B5 to save money, says David Forkrud, petroleum manager at Farmers Co-op Oil, Sacred Heart, MN. "With higher prices for regular diesel, B20, at $2.40 a gallon, was cheaper than B5, which was running about $2.50 at the time.

“But then temperatures dropped way below 30 degrees and my phone started ringing off the hook,” he recalls. “I was hearing the same thing from everyone — clogged fuel filters.”

Forkrud says he's sure his cooperative got some of the off-spec fuel, but he is confident that processors will work hard to prevent similar problems from happening again. “I still support biodiesel and think the industry will work through these kinks in production. It's the right product to be using, just not in stronger blends during the winter months.

“We just need to learn from this experience,” he continues. “We won't be recommending our customers use B20 during the winter months — just B5. Those producers who were using B5 had no problems at all, even when temperatures dropped.”

Downside differences

Equipment manufacturers, and even biodiesel proponents, are quick to point out properties that make biodiesel a bit different from regular diesel. Some of these differences require changes in storage and use. The key, say fuel experts, is that the higher the level of biodiesel in the blend, the more concerned you need to be about the differences.

“With low-level blends, such as B2 and B5, you shouldn't see any noticeable difference in fuel performance or handling,” says research engineer Ken Bickel, who has conducted numerous tests on biodiesel at the University of Minnesota's Center for Diesel Research. “You can start to see some noticeable difference in performance when you use blends of B20 and higher. Its solvent properties can affect rubber components like fuel hoses and pump seals over time. And it gels at temperatures slightly higher than regular diesel.

“Another short-term problem can be that, because it dissolves deposits in fuel lines and tanks, you might have clogged fuel lines or filters for awhile,” Bickel continues. “But that's just a temporary thing, until the fuel system gets cleaned out. In the long run, it can be a good thing.”

Bickel, who mans a biodiesel help line with colleague Kelly Strebig, notes that some of the problems farmers had this past winter with clogged fuel filters could also have been tied to draining storage tanks when regular diesel was in short supply in some parts of the state. “There is almost always going to be some crud at the bottom of a tank that will cause clogging, and in some cases, the problem was likely already in the tank before the biodiesel went in,” Bickel says.

Those problems linked to biodiesel were isolated cases, he emphasizes. “The majority of biodiesel users, especially those who have been using the product for awhile, have had no problems with it,” he says. “I recently talked to the operators of Eureka Recycling in St. Paul where they have been running trucks and equipment on B20 for over a year, and they've had no problems at all, even during the winter.”

Follow the guidelines

There are simple ways to avoid problems with biodiesel or any fuel, Bickel says. “You just have to do your homework and find out what manufacturers recommend for their equipment, as well as store it properly,” he says.

Most equipment manufacturers who have approved low-level biodiesel blends for use in their machines also offer these guidelines:

  • Don't leave biodiesel in engines stored for more than four months or left in storage tanks for longer than six months. Before storing machines that run on biodiesel, flush the engines or fill them with conventional diesel fuel.

  • Discontinue use of biodiesel in winter months because its cloud point is higher than that of conventional No. 1 and 2 diesel fuels. “If you do use it, make sure it's blended with a high-quality, winter-grade diesel fuel,” Bickel says.

  • Because biodiesel can attract moisture, the fuel filter water trap may need to be drained more frequently, and the fuel filter may need to be changed more often, especially after you make the initial fuel change.

  • If you spill biodiesel fuel on painted surfaces, wipe it off immediately so that is doesn't damage the paint.

What's within the warranty

This past year, several original equipment manufacturers indirectly increased their support for biodiesel by boosting the blend percent that can be used under warranty in their equipment and vehicles. Last fall, DaimlerChrysler became the first major U.S. automaker to approve the use of B5 in a consumer vehicle — its Jeep Liberty diesel SUV.

Last month, the company upped the ante and approved the use of B20 in its 2007 model Dodge Ram pickup trucks sold to government, military and commercial fleet customers. That confidence will likely be extended to the consumer version this summer, provided that the American Society of Testing and Materials approves new standards for B20 biodiesel. According to a company spokesman, no changes were made to any truck components to accommodate the use of B20.

In 2005, John Deere began using B2 as the preferred factory-fill fuel in tractors, combines, self-propelled sprayers and other diesel-powered machines. The company, along with most other farm equipment manufacturers, allows biodiesel blends of up to 5% to be used in its machines without voiding warranties. All stipulate, though, that the biodiesel must be high quality and meet ASTM D6751 specifications (see chart).

Soybean oil

Soybeans have taken the lead in the United States in producing oil most in demand for biodiesel production. Currently 85% of U.S.-produced biodiesel comes from soybeans.

Enhancing key characteristics in the crop could improve the quality of that oil or boost its biodiesel yield. To accomplish this, two government departments — Energy and Agriculture — are joining forces to decode the DNA of the soybean, specifically looking for ways to make its oil better for biodiesel production.

The soybean is of particular interest to the Energy Department because biodiesel made from its oil has the highest energy content of any alternative fuel and is more environmentally friendly than comparable petroleum fuels because it degrades rapidly in the environment.

According to a statement released last month, the DOE's Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, CA, will be the lead facility in sequencing the soy genome. To date, the institute has sequenced and released a total of 150 microbial organisms. Director Eddy Rubin says the institute is playing a key role in “translational genomics.”

“That means applying the tools of DNA sequencing and molecular biology to the development of new avenues for clean energy generation and for crop improvement,” Rubin says.

BUSY YEAR FOR BIODIESEL

2005 was a year of rapid growth in both the production of biodiesel and public interest in its use:

  • Federal biodiesel tax incentive is extended through 2008.

  • U.S. biodiesel production jumps from 25 million gallons in 2005 to 75 million gallons in 2006.

  • 53 U.S. plants now produce biodiesel; 54 more are in the planning/building stages.

  • Based on 2006 production levels, biodiesel adds an average 7.5 cents per bushel to the soybeans used to make it.

  • Celebrities, including Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Daryl Hannah and Morgan Freeman, join the biodiesel bandwagon and promote use of the fuel.

  • DaimlerChrysler approves the use of B5 in its Jeep Liberty diesel sport utility vehicle.

WHAT OEMS ALLOW

WHILE ORIGINAL equipment manufacturers are quick to note that they don't warrant fuel, most now allow the use of low biodiesel blends in their products. But those levels still vary among companies, so it pays to know before you fill up your tank.

Manufacturer Position
Caterpillar Many engines approved for B100; others limited to B5
Cummins All engines approved for up to B5
Detroit Diesel Approves use up to B20
Ford Approves use up to B5
General Motors All engines approved for up to B5
International Approves use up to B20
John Deere All engines approved up to B5
Fuel-injection makers
Bosch Approves use up to B5
Delphi Approves use up to B5
Stanadyne Approves use up to B20
Source: National Biodiesel Board