US biodiesel entering battle of the blends

08 February 2010 23:44  [Source: ICIS news]

GRAPEVINE, Texas (ICIS news)--With US use of biodiesel expected to climb, renewable fuel producers and auto makers are debating how much biodiesel is too much, sources said on Monday.

Biodiesel producers at the 2010 National Biodiesel Conference in Grapevine are advocating a standard fuel-pump blend of B20 (20% biodiesel, 80% traditional diesel) as being safe for most engine types and better for the environment and their own bottom lines. But some auto makers, and even some biodiesel blenders, are putting the brakes on going further than the current standard of B5 for the foreseeable future.

"We approve B5 for our vehicles," said Stuart Johnson, manager of engineering and environmental issues at Volkswagen Group of America. "Our biggest issue with higher blends is crank-case pollution, which could lead to higher engine failure."

ASTM International, the group that sets quality standards for manufacturing, approved B20 blends for use in engines. But most of the biodiesel available in the US market is not at that level of quality, sources said.

Trucks running on B20 have consistent problems with plugged fuel filters, with the parts averaging only 30% of their normal lifespan, said Brent Calcut, an engineer at Detroit Diesel, a Michigan-based subsidiary of German automaker Daimler.

"Significant amounts of biodiesel in the marketplace do not meet ASTM specifications although every refiner says they do," Calcut said.  

Still, producers are pushing for more B20-ready vehicles. General Motors and Ford Motors have both unveiled heavy-duty trucks and vans that can run on the blend, and automakers are looking to expand the market even more.

Michael Omotoso, senior manager for automotive forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates in Michigan, said that diesel-fuelled passenger cars and trucks will represent up to 10% of total vehicles in the US by 2019, up from 2.5% in 2009, as automakers in the US introduce more "green" cars. Honda, Nissan and other automakers had intended to introduce revamped models from their fleets outside North America into the US marketplace in the next few years until the recent financial upheaval caused the companies to delay those plans, Omotoso said. 

Which blends those vehicles will run will depend on how comfortable blenders, parts manufacturers and engineers are with them. 

To make them more comfortable, US biodiesel refiners may have to adopt stricter standards for their own product, said Todd Ellis of Imperium Renewables, a major US producer of the renewable fuel.

"We agree with the major North American petroleum refiners that the biodiesel industry needs to improve specifications," Ellis said. 

Doris de Guzman examines alternative processing, new technology, R&D and other sustainability initiatives in her Green Chemicals blog
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By: Ben Lefebvre
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