Cover Story: Fueling the future

You can’t beat crude oil for a resource. For the last 150 years all we had to do was pump it out of the ground, heat it up in refineries and go.

But oil is becoming scarce. Prices jolt upward, and we can’t overlook the fact that much of the world’s oil supply comes from dictators who don’t share our democratic values. The much debated greenhouse effect is another concern. And as a big user of diesel fuel and petroleum products, the heavy construction industry has more reasons than most to be concerned.

The trouble is the mass media and celebrity-driven campaigns create a lot of attention, but not many long term solutions. Where real, sustainable, macro-level changes are occurring, is in the engineering departments of heavy equipment and engine manufacturers and in the R&D departments of agricultural and petroleum companies. Quietly and without fanfare America’s manufacturers, gearheads and scientists have gone to work.

In “Fueling the Future,” we’ve put together a year’s worth of research and interviews to demonstrate how committed the industry is to solving these problems, how these changes will affect you and how you as a contractor can play a role.

In Part I this month we talk about biodiesel. Next month in Part II we’ll brief you on how contractors are adapting to ultra low sulfur diesel and today’s high petroleum prices. Then in Part III in October we’ll show you what’s on the manufacturers’ drawing boards for tomorrow’s fuel savings – high tech engines, diesel-electric hybrids and satellite-guided earthmoving. EW
-Tom Jackson

Clogged filters? Cold weather problems? Horsepower reductions? Undeterred biodiesel users make it work

It seems perfect: in one fell swoop we can grow our own renewable fuel, reduce key diesel emissions and thumb our nose at the Middle East.

If only it were that easy.

Biodiesel does offer benefits to an industry that’s taken knocks for its diesel emissions output. In a 2002 draft technical report examining the effects of B20 on 1997 and earlier truck engines, the Environmental Protection Agency reported an 11-percent decrease in particulate matter, a 21-percent decrease in hydrocarbons and an 11-percent decrease in carbon monoxide. But the EPA also saw a 2-percent increase in oxides of nitrogen, something researchers are still puzzling over.

Biodiesel also adds lubricity to the fuel, especially helpful in this era of ultra low sulfur diesel, and has a high Cetane number. It’s fully biodegradeable and non-toxic.

And in a statement that includes both the gasoline-replacement ethanol and biodiesel, the U.S. Department of Energy says if – and it’s a big if – “certain technological and other barriers are overcome, domestically produced fuels made from renewable biomass have the potential to displace as much as 30 percent of current U.S. transportation fuel consumption by 2030.”

We have a long way to go to reach that level.

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report dated June 8, 2007, the problems facing widespread use of biofuels (the report examined both biodiesel and ethanol) are many, but primarily boil down to research, cost and infrastructure.

Biofuels simply cost more than petroleum fuels to produce, the result of various factors in the supply-demand chain. Even with explosive growth – from 2004 to 2006 biodiesel production expanded from 28 million gallons to approximately 287 million gallons – biodiesel and ethanol together only made up 3 percent of gasoline and diesel motor fuel used in 2006.

And since the primary biodiesel feedstock used in the United States is soybeans you have to factor in that soybeans have many other uses, most of which – feeding humans and livestock – take precedence to fuel.

Beyond the national and global implications, there are also issues with biodiesel on the user level. While most biodiesel sold today is usually a blend of 5 or 20 percent biodiesel (hence the designations of B5, B20, etc.), at the B100 level there are recognized problems:

  • It quickly gels in cold weather, leading to clogged filters and pumping problems.
  • It acts as a detergent on initial use, requiring more frequent filter changes for a time.
  • It softens and degrades certain types of elastomers and natural rubber products over time, including fuel hoses and fuel pump seals.
  • It has a shorter shelf life than diesel.
  • It has been shown to increase nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in many engines on engine stand tests.
  • And it contains 8 percent less energy per gallon than No. 2 diesel.

None of this has deterred those who have dipped their toes into biodiesel. Equipment World interviewed a variety of construction equipment users in both construction firms and government fleets, and their advice is clear: “Do your homework.”

Part of that homework is learning from the experiences of others. Here’s what a cross section of biodiesel users across the country have learned.

User stories: North Carolina Dot
One of the early pioneers in using biodiesel in off-road equipment, the department tried B100 in the mid-90s, then quickly backed off. “It was problematic, especially with the quality of fuel and the price,” says Drew Harbinson, director of equipment and inventory control. The department then switched to B20 for a pilot program in two divisions.

Primarily because the department handles all county road maintenance, North Carolina DOT has the largest state equipment fleet in the country, according to Harbinson. With 18,000 pieces of rolling stock, he estimates the department has burned 7 million gallons of B20 to date, and expects to convert the entire fleet to B20 this year. That will be a lot of B20 in use, since NCDOT uses about 11 million gallons of diesel fuel a year. The additional cost of biodiesel has varied from 9 cents to 30 cents per gallon.

What’s prevented Harbinson from this total conversion before now? “The biodiesel supply just hasn’t been there,” he says. “We’re probably the biggest single user of B20 in the country, and the supply we need is just now becoming available.”

Advice? “Your biggest enemy is fuel sitting in a tank and not being turned over,” Harbinson says. The department now insists on a 120-day B20 turnover.

And Harbinson says to make sure you insist on fuel from BQ-9000 producers and marketers. (See “Quality Control” sidebar on page 50.) “We’ve added language to our contracts where our suppliers have to pay a $1,500 fine and replace any biodiesel free of charge if one of our machines goes down because of biodiesel,” Harbinson says. We also maintain the right to test, which we do periodically.

“B20 seems to be the best blend right now,” Harbinson comments. “But the blends need their own standard. That way, you’d be able to bid it cleaner and make sure you were comparing apples to apples.”

North Bay Construction
Petaluma, California-based North Bay Construction started a biodiesel pilot program in May 2006, using a B20 blend in 12 machines on a sewer and water project in Sonoma County, California. “I didn’t want to involve all 300 pieces of our fleet if there were going to be problems,” says Steve Geney, president and co-owner. He also had his equipment manager query engine manufacturers. “We wanted to make sure we got concurrence from them,” he says.

The 12 pilot machines were a diverse fleet, including dozers, scrapers, excavators, backhoes, wheel loaders, pavers and rollers. In addition to being able to test B20 across a wide cross section of its fleet, North Bay also had a control measure: an on-site 2,000-gallon biodiesel tank from which everyone fueled.

“This pilot program gave us the green light,” Geney says. “We had no mechanical failures and we’re now in the process of cleaning all of our equipment fuel trucks and tanks to use biodiesel.” Geney estimates they will use between 200,000 and 300,000 gallons of biodiesel a year.

It wasn’t the cheapest switch to make: last year biodiesel in North Bay’s area was 25 cents a gallon higher than regular diesel. “This year it’s on par to a few cents higher,” Geney says. “When it was higher, we decided we wanted to do something proactive. We have a lot of clients who are going into green building, and our use of biodiesel allows them credits. Besides, we always like to be the first guys out there. The cost disparity wasn’t so large that it made a strong financial impact.”

North Bay swapped out machine and tank fuel filters with every new tank of biodiesel, but “that just lasted the first week and then we were back to our normal fuel filter change intervals,” Geney says.

Nor did they have to switch petroleum suppliers. Their regular fuel jobber is providing them with the B20.

“We started a trend,” Geney says. “A couple of our major competitors have jumped on board and started advertising their use of biodiesel. Hopefully our industry will step up and get rid of its Scarlet Letter.”

Manufacturer What’s Approved Now For which engines? Example(s) of a biodiesel approved machine/vehicle What’s ahead? Additional biodiesel information
Case B5 and B20 B5 for all engines, including common-rail fuel injection models; B20 on all mechanical fuel-injected engines, except for some skid steer and excavator engines imported from Japan B5: 410 backhoe; B20: 430 backhoe Will be talking to construction customers about field testing B100; biodiesel information is listed under “highlights” section. (Although this Case’s agriculture website, the biodiesel information applies for construction)
Cat B5 and B30 B5 for C0.5 to C6.6 ACERT engines; B30 for C7 through C32 ACERT engines Note: any blends above 20 percent require a complete Cat S-O-S Services oil analysis program B5: 320D L excavator; B30: 950H wheel loader Biodiesel guidelines are listed in the June, 2007, document, “Caterpillar Commercial Diesel Engine Fluids Recommendations,” available at Cat dealers
Cummins B5 and B20 B5 on all engines; B20 on many Tier 3 engines, including QSB4.5, QSB6.7, QSC, QSL, QSM and QSX, 99 to 630 horsepower Select model years of the Cummins powered Dodge Ram pickup truck used in municipal, government and commercial fleets are approved for B20. For the 2008 model year, that includes Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 models with the 6.7-liter Cummins turbo diesel. It appears that B20 is the effective blend limit regarding impact on fuel economy, power, emissions, oil diluation, water separation, aftertreatment, materials compatibility and fuel handling issues. B100 must be sourced from a BQ-9000 accredited producer and purchased from a BQ-9000 certified marketer; every/customer/faq_biodiesel.jsp
Deere B2 (factory fill); B5 B5 approved for all Deere engines. 4WD loaders, skid steers, backhoes, excavators, dozers B20 presently under investigation as are higher biodiesel levels; expect announcement on higher approved levels by the end of the year. en_US/ag/servicesupport/tips/ tractors/common_stories/ biodiesel_in_john_ deere_tractors.html#
JCB B20 All JCB Dieselmax engines produced after Jan. 1, 2007 Note: This does not apply to the non-JCB engines used in JCB machines. 3C and 3CX backhoe loaders, 508 telescopic handler Evaluating the use of higher levels up to B100; “B20 is sufficient for the time being.”
Komatsu B5 Tier 2 and 3 engines Komatsu continues to evaluate all forms of alternative fuels for its off-road equipment.
MTU Detroit Diesel B5 All engines Hitachi EH750-3 rigid frame truck
Perkins B5 and B20 B5: Perkins 400, 800 and 1100 Series engines; Tier 3 engines “are being progressively approved to B20”
Volvo B20 if soy based; B30 if non-soy based Volvo engines larger than 4 liters Current model wheel loaders, articulated trucks and excavators Volvo is looking into different alternatives and testing B100.
Yanmar B5 TNV Series TNV Series used in several makes/models of skid steers, backhoes, compact excavators, etc. Currently conducting final testing for B20 Must meet ASTM D6751 B100 spec

This diversified road construction company in Brooklyn, Iowa, has been using biodiesel for about four years. “Our division started using B2 and now we’re up to B20,” reports Curt Manatt, general manager for Manatt’s metro division, which uses the blend primarily in its ready-mix and rock trucks, but also puts it in pavers and loaders.

The Manatt’s division used to pay about a penny extra per percentage point of biodiesel in the blend. They made the switch from B2 to B20 when biodiesel in the Des Moines, Iowa, area became cheaper than regular diesel. “Now they’re about equal,” Manatt says. He indicates if biodiesel prices take a steep hike, “we’ll cut back. We’re watching it.”

So far, so good, says Manatt. The division he’s in charge of uses about 300,000 gallons of biodiesel blend per year in about 100 machines.

“The filters were just a minimal issue,” he says.

Greeneck Earth Works
To Joe Montesano, one of the partners of Greeneck Earth Works in Tetonia, Idaho, the name of his company says it all. “Green construction for an excavating company even applies to the fuel you select to operate the equipment,” Montesano says.

A great deal of Greeneck’s environmental practices are prompted by the area where the company works: the pristine Teton Valley of eastern Idaho. “People here are concerned about the environment and frankly so are we,” Montesano relates. “We like to say we went from being a red neck to a green neck builder.”

So Greeneck went to Darren Andrews, their sales representative with Pioneer Equipment in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and asked what they needed to do to make their Case machines run B20. The company converted a CX 160 excavator, two 580 Super M Series 2 backhoes and a 440 skid-steer loader to B20. “Our goal is to eventually use B100, at least in the summer,” Montesano says. For now, their summer mix is eight parts No. 1 diesel (most B20 uses No. 2 diesel) and two parts B100.

“Our equipment runs just fine on this mixture,” Montesano says. “We have not had any unusual problems. We just fuel the machines and go.”

Arlington County, Virginia
Fredric “Ric” Hiller, chief of the equipment bureau for the Department of Environmental Services in Arlington County, Virginia, has required virgin soy oil as the feedstock ever since his department started using B20 in 2002 on its 375-piece fleet – which includes a mixture of dump trucks, mixers, backhoes, loaders, fire trucks and school buses.

Hiller says all his heavy equipment “comes home to roost every night, and there was a big black cloud when we fired it up in the morning. The county asked me what we could do to change this.”

Hiller’s first step before putting B20 in the fleet’s tanks: asking equipment operators and school bus drivers to come in immediately if they felt any degradation. “That way we could replace the primary and secondary fuel filters right away,” he says. They kept on top of the filters during the transition and had no problems.

During cold weather, Hiller changes his biodiesel blend from B20 to B5. “We had a bad cold snap in 2005, which created gelling problems, so we suspended the use of B20 in the winter,” he says. The county also uses a gel inhibitor in its blend.

Another gelling problem cropped up this past December, which Hiller traced to a bad load of ULSD. “The biodiesel actually was OK,” he says. They put in a double dose of gel inhibitor and continued without additional problems.

“You need to monitor your suppliers to make sure they’re meeting ASTM standards and you’re getting good quality fuels – both diesel and biodiesel,” Hiller says. He also calls the National Biodiesel Board’s BQ-9000 designation for producers and marketers the industry’s “Good Housekeeping Seal.”

Blacksburg, Virginia
The city of Blacksburg is a new user of biodiesel, converting all the city’s diesel vehicles – including buses, vans and construction equipment – to B20 this May. Drew Mattingly, director of public works, took his cues from the nearby experts in Arlington County, Virginia. “They told me if I did my research and identified the potential problems, I’d be fine,” he says.

Even though he started investigating biodiesel two years ago, Mattingly paused because of the cost. “We’re now paying about 8 cents more than regular diesel, but a year ago, it was so high I couldn’t afford to pitch it to the town council.”

Once a month Mattingly tests the B20 blend he gets from three suppliers. “In my research, fuel quality was the main reason for problems that people ran into,” he says. “Regular testing seems the best way to counter those problems. Our test confirms whether or not we are getting B20. We take our sample right out of the nozzle. If there are any problems I want to zero in on the cause.”

Mattingly says he might have hesitated if he’d had an older fleet because of biodiesel’s problems with rubber components. For now, however, he’s got his backhoes, graders, skid steers, mowers, dump trucks – in fact everything except emergency generators, fire trucks and EMT trucks – on B20.

Blacksburg’s conversion plan required tanks that had held regular diesel be professionally cleaned prior to the first delivery of B20.

They also purchased additional fuel filters and monitored the filters and pumps at the B20 fuel storage tank on a daily basis, replacing the filters weekly until routine filter change outs could occur.

Research prompted Mattingly to insist on virgin soybean oil. “I like the Cetane level of soy and I wanted to stay away from animal fats,” he says. “But there is a social issue because soy is food, so I’m keeping an eye on that.”

Walsh Construction
Walsh Construction, Portland, Oregon, has been using B20 for about one-and-a-half years. “We were a little hesitant at first,” says Sloan Bradley, equipment manager, “because we’d heard all the stories about loss of horsepower and mileage.” Still, the company decided to put one Dodge Ram 3500 turbo delivery truck on B20. Now the company fuels all five delivery trucks with B20 and plans to expand biodiesel use to its heavy trucks.

Bradley calls the company’s B20 use “part of the corporate environment. It’s our company’s way of doing things.” And right now the company’s biodiesel prices are tracking 20 cents behind bulk diesel.

And what about the company’s construction equipment? “I wouldn’t rule against it, but you have to be careful with new equipment and warranties,” Bradley says. “B5 seems to be OK with engine manufacturers, though.”

Other biodiesel users

  • Tennessee Department of Transportation: Starting with a pilot program in December 2005 that involved their dump trucks and snow plows, the Tennessee DOT is now expanding their use of B20 in off-road equipment. “Since some of our equipment sits in the winter months, we’re using B20 in our active equipment in the summertime,” says Linda Tidwell with TDOT’s environmental policy office. Tidwell says they’ve been talking to their highway contractors about using biodiesel. “The bottom line for them is price,” she says. “They’re not interested if they have to pay a premium.”
  • City of Portland, Oregon: Has used B20 in city-owned diesel vehicles and equipment since 2004, including approximately 370 trucks, 160 pieces of construction equipment and 60 towed units. The city’s Water Bureau is taking the plunge and plans to use B99 in vehicles.
  • City of San Francisco, California: Announced in April it would use B20 fleet wide after a 2006 pilot program.

A place for B100?
Max Liby, vice president of manufacturing for Hutchinson Salt, Hutchinson, Kansas, has used B100 (which actually has a splash of regular diesel in it for tax purposes) on the machines he uses in his underground salt mine since “June 17, 2003,” he says. His objective: to reduce the amount of diesel particulate matter in the confined environment of the mine.

“It made a drastic difference,” he reports, in meeting Mine Safety and Health Administration exposure limits for airborne particulate matter. And his operators reported they were no longer seeing soot when they blew their noses. The conversion from using B100 on a single machine – “if I was going to blow out an engine, I only wanted it to be one,” Liby says – to his entire underground fleet took about a month. (The fleet includes a 2004 Cat 420D backhoe.)

Liby shrugs at arguments that using B100 voids his engine warranties. “The engine manufacturers won’t stand behind you if you get bad regular diesel fuel, so what’s the difference?,” he says.

But he admits the mine environment – with its constant 72-degree, year-around temperatures – prevents him from experiencing cold-weather gelling problems. “In fact, I don’t use it in my topside fleet because of that,” Liby says. He also made sure he replaced all the rubber fuel hose lines on his older fleet, which “was not a big deal because we make our own hoses.”

Nor was Liby troubled by the 8 percent energy loss of B100. “All of our engines are overpowered anyway,” he says. “If you need a little more power, put the pedal closer to the floor.”

All this is well and good, but most contractors don’t work in salt mines. They do, however, work in confined buildings, says Darrin Nelson, safety manager with Turner Construction’s Portland, Oregon, office. An example would be the 500,000-square-foot data center Turner is constructing in Quincy, Washington.

While most of the site was open to the elements during construction of the first half of the building, during the second half, 85 percent of the structure has been closed to fresh air. “Carbon monoxide and diesel particulates became an issue,” Nelson says.

So Turner put it in its contract: Starting this past February, all equipment used on site – including excavators, trucks, backhoes and aerial lifts – must use B100. “It’s working great so far,” Nelson says. “In fact, when state inspectors came to test our air quality, we had a concrete pump truck and two concrete mixers pouring a slab. The inspectors were scratching their heads because they couldn’t get a reading.”

Nelson reports the B100 smell is something to get used to: “It’s not bad, it’s just different,” he says. But it also makes it easy to check on whether subs are complying with Turner’s B100 directive. “All you have to do is smell the machine as you’re walking by,” he says. The list of equipment that used B100 successfully this spring on the Turner project includes excavators, loaders, backhoes, gen sets, welders, forklifts, dump trucks and cement trucks. Only two medium-sized excavators coughed up their B100 and became underpowered – ironically, both were brand new machines that had a “special emissions package” on them.

Turner’s B100 supplier, Central Washington Biodiesel, uses both canola and soy feedstocks. They’re delivering an average of 1,500 gallons a week to the site. Steve Verhey, a founder of Central Washington Biodiesel, says although the B100 on the Turner project is generating some interest, few contractors are following suit.

“We did get some push back from the subs,” Verhey says, “primarily because so many of them were renting equipment and they had to run it past their rental suppliers.” Which is a bit ironic, he comments, since he credits Jess Bennett, a territory rep with a local RSC branch, with being “key in this effort.”

According to Verhey, Turner’s air quality concerns lead them to ask rental companies for electric powered equipment for the job’s second phase. But many of the machines they needed were diesel powered only. Bennett contacted Verhey, and both brought back the B100 proposal to Turner.

“Most of our subs have newer equipment, so there wasn’t an issue with rubber,” Nelson says. “We were worried about the fuel filters clogging, but a couple of our rental companies just put frequent filter change outs into their maintenance practices.”

RSC’s Bennett estimates RSC put biodiesel in $1 million to $2 million of its fleet for the job. And the switch from biodiesel back to regular diesel went without a hitch, an important point since rental machines come and go on jobsites. In fact, with an eye on other market opportunities, the RSC branch now has a biodiesel tank on site.

“We were geared up for the filter problem, but it didn’t happen,” Bennett says.

If you want to work here, you use B100
A mall expansion in Syracuse, New York, is putting use of B100 in construction equipment under an intense field test. Prompted by its chairman Robert Congel’s vision of a 100-percent fossil-fuel-free project, developer Destiny USA has put this stipulation in all contracts since June 10: if you want to work on the first phase of this 5-million-square-foot project, you use B100 in your machines.

Site development contractor A. P. Reale, Ticonderoga, New York, is serving as Destiny’s primary test subject. After a series of meetings with Destiny, equipment suppliers and construction equipment manufacturers, Reale started the project on March 26th using B5. There was rapid escalation from that point on – Reale went to B20 about a week later, then went up to B50, and finally settled on B100 within a month from the mobilization date.

“We thought, ‘what the heck, we’ll give it a try,'” says Charlie Manfred, project manager with Reale. “But we’ve found the benefits to be unbelieveable. There’s no black smoke, just a deep-fat fryer smell. Our operators love it.”

The round of biodiesel meetings were key, Manfred says. “At first the reaction of everyone was ‘no way,’ but once they saw the scope of the project and what Destiny’s trying to do here, we came to an understanding.” That understanding did not guarantee anything on the manufacturers’ side beyond the use of B20. “We’re partnering with Destiny on this,” Manfred says, “so together we’ll deal with things such as possible engine problems.”

Reale has replaced rubber fuel lines with metal lines, but says they haven’t had to add any pre-filters and have noted only a small horsepower loss. “Only experienced operators would notice it,” he says.

Reale’s 19 on-site machines are primarily leased, 2006 models, and include dozers, excavators, compactors and an older-model grader. Makes include Caterpillar, Volvo, Deere, Kobelco and Hamm. Volvo-dealer Vantage Equipment is servicing all machines, doing oil samples every 100 hours and checking engine diagnostics.

When we talked to Manfred, he estimated he had used 48,000 gallons of fuel to date, 15,000 of which was B100. By the time the 18-month project is completed, he expects to have used 250,000 gallons of B100. Parish, New York-based Ascent Aviation Group, which meets BQ-9000 and ASTM standards, provides all project fuel with a 28,000-gallon fuel tanker, which also runs on B100.

But Syracuse isn’t exactly in the Sunbelt: What about the upcoming winter? Some ideas being kicked around include parking the machines overnight in a heated facility and using a heated storage tank. “Maybe we’ll put tank heaters on the machines, but I hope it doesn’t get that far,” Manfred says. “One thing we have going for us is that these machines are running hard 12 hours a day. Once you get the machine up and running and you put heated fuel in it, it should work.”

B100 comes at a hefty price premium over diesel, however. On this portion of the project, Destiny is paying the $1.50 per gallon added cost.

Price comparisons
As with regular diesel, biodiesel prices vary greatly from location to location. Today, however, most users are reporting per-gallon B20 prices that are tracking within two to 20 cents plus or minus of regular diesel.

This was not true a few years ago. In fact, biodiesel pioneers paid hefty costs. Max Liby says he paid $1 a gallon more than regular diesel when he started using B100 in 2003. At an estimated 30,000 gallons per year, it became a $30,000 premium. Liby considers the cost well worth the “health and welfare of my employees. Plus, that was $30,000 we spent here in the Midwest rather than outside the country.”

Arlington County’s Hiller estimates that B20 carried a 25 cent premium over diesel when he started using it in 2002. “Now it’s just a few cents more.” The pricing is helped by the $1 per gallon federal excise tax credit biodiesel blenders get, which is typically passed on to users. “It makes it competitive,” Hiller says, who uses about 120,000 gallons a year of biodiesel.

When we talked with Turner Construction’s Nelson, biodiesel’s price was $2.85 a gallon, “within pennies of diesel,” he says. Then again, “price wasn’t much of a consideration. It was the health and welfare of our workers.”

Air quality questions
Most parties we talked to agree biodiesel’s research needs are many. The last EPA emmissions study was done on pre-1998 engines – ancient technology, and fairly dirty, by today’s engine standards.

To meet the EPA’s Tier 3 emissions requirements in 2002 and 2003, engine manufacturers drastically redesigned their engines for cleaner and more complete combustion. And the new on-highway engines coming off the assembly lines this spring cut emissions even further with exhaust scrubbing diesel particulate filters and diesel oxidation catalysts in place of the mufflers.

One question yet to be answered is whether biodiesel will produce the same emission results in these new engines, especially those with exhaust after treatment devices. And there’s the lingering question of NOx, with present research differing on whether or not it increases with biodiesel use.

Add to that the issue of using biodiesel in certifying engines to meet emissions regulations; manufacturers are now using ULSD. “If you use biodiesel as your certifying fuel then you have to say it will help you meet emission regs,” says Terry Oftedal, project engineer, John Deere Construction & Forestry Division. “There’s just not enough data yet to do that.”

A few studies are underway. The California Air Resource Board is putting together a biodiesel study on both on-road and off-road engines. ARB proposes to do engine dynamometer tests on soy and recycled grease feedstocks in B5, B20, B50 and B100 blends. Another proposed study will evaluate the impact of B100 and biodiesel blends relative to ULSD fuel.

California ARB also has a draft advisory out on biodiesel use, which prompted Richard Moskowitz with the American Trucking Associations to respond: “While it is clear that biodiesel will reduce particulate matter emissions and reduce green house gasses, its impact on ozone formation is less clear. The trucking industry has spent billions of dollars on engine technologies that reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and has borne additional costs in the mandated use of California’s boutique diesel fuel. It seems irrational to promote the use of 20 percent biodiesel blends prior to quantifying the positive and negative impacts this will have on ambient air quality.”

An ASTM subcommittee has been working on a B20 spec for more than two years. Last year, the Engine Manufacturers Association issued a specification for engine manufacturers to use for testing purposes. “Considering the tremendous investment that engine manufacturers and the nation have made to develop today’s low-emitting and energy efficient diesel technology, we cannot just assume that biodiesel is better,” said Jed Mandel, EMA president, when the test spec was published.

NCDOT is conducting its own biodiesel research with North Carolina State University. “Most of the research studies are done on chassis dynamometers and the NOx went up during those tests,” Harbinson says. “We felt the dyno test is not an accurate test in ambient environments, so we’ve asked the university to do real-world duty-cycle testing.” The on-road portion of the research, conducted with 12 dump trucks using soy-based B20, is done, with a Transportation Reseach Board paper presented this January. “It showed that NOx in biodiesel fuels in this application actually was reduced by 10 percent,” Harbinson says. The next phase of the research, which tracked off-road biodiesel use in backhoes, loaders and graders that had Tier 1 to Tier 3 engines, is under review. “In our preliminary results, we didn’t notice either an increase or decrease in NOx,” says researcher Dr. Christopher Frey, with NCSU’s Department of Civil Construction & Environmental Engineering.

The California Department of Transportation just finished a six-month pilot product that examined using B20 made primarily out of recycled cooking oil in 20 trucks and construction machines. The University of California at Riverside is now examining the data.

Haul truck test shows promise
One Fort Dodge, Iowa, trucking company isn’t waiting for others to do their research. Decker Truck Line – in coordination with Iowa Central Community College, Caterpillar, the National Biodiesel Board, Renewable Energy Group (a biodiesel producer), Iowa Soybean Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – is conducting the “Two Million Mile Haul.”

Dubbed a “B20 Field Documentation Program,” the Decker haul is pitting a fleet of identically spec’d 2007 Peterbilts with Cat C13 ACERT engines on two routes, Fort Dodge to Minneapolis and Fort Dodge to Chicago. The only difference: one half of the 20 trucks are using regular diesel and the other half are using B20. The objective: to measure costs (fuel, additive, parts, management, maintenance and downtime) up to the two million mile point.

Started August, 2006, the test is now past the 750,000-mile point, reports Steve Lursen, special projects director for Decker. “We’ve found no difference in power whatsoever, although we have seen a 2-percent decline in miles per gallon, not something we consider critical,” he says. “We think the variance between drivers will more than explain the 2 percent.” Decker plans to switch drivers at one million miles.

“We wanted to find out if biodiesel was something that would work for us,” says Lursen. “There were only government fleet studies to go on, and they didn’t apply to our applications.” The test’s biodiesel – which is currently running two cents a gallon less than regular diesel – is all pumped through an Iowa terminal for control purposes.

Although a complete engine tear down will occur at the end of the test, Lursen says Caterpillar took a quick peek into the engines in early May and reported no scars or wearing.

“Biodiesel is easy in the summer,” Lursen says. “When it’s colder, there’s a fair amount of management involved. We saw 26 below zero this past winter, so we put in a gel inhibitor and also blended No. 1 diesel in with our No. 2 diesel.” And since diesel batches can vary on how much gel inhibitor is needed, Iowa Central Community College runs cold filter plug point tests throughout the winter. “We start adding the gel inhibitor at 20 degrees above,” Lursen says. “Without their help, we’d start adding it at 30 degrees above.”

Engine manufacturer cautions
Engine manufacturers are stepping into the biodiesel field with a bit of caution. While some biodiesel users say their engine manufacturers will tell them privately B20 is fine, their public statements vary (see chart on page 41).

The closest to a blanket statement comes from EMA, which states B5 is acceptable for “virtually all engines,” according to Joe Suchecki, EMA’s director of public affairs. “And that’s with the assumption that the B100 used in the blend meets ASTM specs,” he says. (An ASTM standard for B20 is under development. Parallel to this activity, says engine manufacturer Perkins, is a consideration by ASTM to incorporate B5 blend into the ASTM D975, or distillate diesel blend, standard. If passed, this implies any diesel fuel in the United States can have biodiesel up to 5 percent.)

Among engine manufacturers there seems to be universal agreement as to the number one biodiesel concern. “The biggest challenge is with biodiesel quality – both when produced and with any deterioration during storage,” says Dr. Tim Leverton, JCB Group engineering director. “Really, the major issue is consistency of fuel quality,” agrees Mike Reinhart, marketing manager, industrial engines, Caterpillar.

The fuel quality issue is exacerbated by the fact that these manufacturers serve worldwide markets. The different feedstocks used around the world include soy, rapeseed (what America calls canola), algae, animal fats and recycled cooking oil. “The key element to which alternative fuels are approved would depend on the establishment of a worldwide standard,” says Michael Milostan, product marketing manager, working gear, Komatsu. “There are even variations between U.S. regions.”

Since fuel quality is so critical, forget about any home brews. Most manufacturers specifically state the biodiesel you use to blend in your diesel must meet ASTM specs.

Case, for instance, insists that biodiesel used in its equipment is both transesterified (a process that separates the glycerin from the oil) and meets the B100 ASTM D6751 standard. If these two conditions are not met, Case is clear: if any machine is found to have run with any blend of non-approved fuel, it’s no longer covered by the warranty.

Biodiesel-related warranty statements by the manufacturers tend to mirror each other. Deere, for example, issued this statement: “The John Deere Construction & Forestry Equipment Division will continue to warrant against defects in material and workmanship for customers using B20 or lower blends. However, problems with engines and equipment that are caused by poor fuel quality, whether caused by pure petroleum or biodiesel blends, are not warranted. Although John Deere doesn’t recommend using blends higher than B5 at this time, the use of blends up to B20 does not void the John Deere warranty.”

And according to Cummins’ online statement on biodiesel use, “engine damage, service issues and/or performance issues determined by Cummins to be caused by the use of biodiesel fuel not meeting the specifications outlined in the Fuels Requirement-Service Bulletin are not considered to be defects in material or workmanship, and are not covered under Cummins engine warranty. This is no different from Cummins position with any regular fuel.”

Other engine-related concerns
Biodiesel has a natural affinity for water, says Cummins, and water accelerates microbial growth. In previous generations of engines the amount of water or algae that might slip past your fuel filters and fuel/water separators was not a big issue. Fuel injector tolerances were wide enough to occasionally accommodate less than perfect fuel. But most of today’s Tier 3 and Tier 4 engines use what’s known as common rail fuel systems that shoot fuel into the cylinders at 20,000 psi or better using solenoids and computer-controlled injection pulses that meter fuel in ultra-precise amounts. Water or contamination here can shut down an engine instantly or quickly ruin expensive injectors.

“If there is a fuel quality issue, you’ll find it sooner with a common-rail system,” Deere’s Oftedal says.

“While common-rail injectors are not an issue on the ag side, we still want to test it more on the construction side,” says Rick Hall, product planning and process improvement, product development, Case Construction Equipment.

But what about older engines? “The same conditions apply for previous tier engines as for Tier 3 engines,” Hall says. The only concern: pre-Tier 1 engines that may have some rubber compounds. Rubber also should not be a problem with newer Deere engines, Oftedal says. “We changed all fuel systems to Viton or other types of materials that don’t react to biodiesel in the early 90s,” he says.

Another concern is service intervals. “We’ve been investigating possible changes to service intervals and have concluded if the fuel quality meets specs and a user follows fuel handling recommendations, then there should be no change in service intervals,” Oftedal says.

Cummins warns, however, that fuel dilution of lubricating oil has been observed with using biodiesel under certain operating conditions. It says the fuel levels in lubricating oil must not exceed 5 percent, something that can be monitored with your regular oil sampling program.

Will there be enough biodiesel to go around?
It depends on who you ask. There are 148 plants actively marketing biodiesel as of June 2007 with a maximum capacity of 1.39 billion gallons per year, according to the National Biodiesel Board, an industry association. But capacity is significantly different than actual production. In 2006, biodiesel plants produced 287 million gallons.

Of those 148 plants, only 19 producers are BQ-9000 certified, which means they adhere to a voluntary set of standards set by NBB. Some engine manufacturers specify that biodiesel comes from a BQ-9000 producer, and others even specify the biodiesel be provided by a BQ-9000 marketer, of which there are currently seven.

NBB says 96 companies have plants currently under construction, due for completion in the next 18 months. Another five plants are expanding existing operations. If all these plans come to fruition, it would result in an additional 1.89 billion gallons of biodiesel per year.

Although NBB says biodiesel plants are located in 41 states, the lion’s share of them are in the Midwest. A map on the NBB website shows the cluster quite well – it’s hard to distinguish the state lines of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri.

This all sounds like biodiesel is booming, and it is, but only to a point, says the June 2007, GAO report, which examined both biodiesel and ethanol. “The challenge of producing biofuels at a lower cost than petroleum fuels makes it unlikely that they will displace a considerable amount of the petroleum used in transportation fuels until new production processes are developed,” says GAO.

NBB disputes some of the gloomier aspects of the GAO report. “There are independent economic studies that show capacities well above what they are reporting,” Higgins says. “I don’t think their report takes into account how the market will respond to the demand for biodiesel. We expect 5 percent of on-road diesel to be biodiesel by 2015, to the level of 2 billion gallons per year.”

But Mother Nature has her limits, says Mark Ash, agricultural economist with the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Most of the good farmland in America has already been put to use,” he says. And although soybean prices are 50 percent higher than two years ago, soy is losing out in the fuel battle to ethanol’s corn. “In our last accounting, soy acreage is at 64 million acres, down from 75.5 million acres last year, the lowest point since 1995,” Ash says. In contrast, corn acreage this year is the largest since 1984.

Presently, about 5 million acres of soy oil is going to biodiesel. “But remember there’s no dedicated acreage for biodiesel since farmers can sell soybeans for a number of uses,” Ash says.

“There’s a lot of biodiesel production coming on line,” Higgins says, “but the quality is critical. Biodiesel is in a cycle of extreme growth and it’s possible not everyone will succeed.” Her primary suggestion to contractors: “Make sure you buy from a reputable source. The BQ-9000 program is one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting the quality you require.”
–Marcia Gruver

Using biodiesel
These tips come from Case Construction Equipment, John Deere, Cummins and the National Biodiesel Board.

  • Start your winter procedures at about 16 degrees Fahrenheit. This can include adding gel inhibitors, mixing in No. 1 diesel, reducing the blend of biodiesel you use, or discontinuing the use of biodiesel all together.
  • Drain the water separator once a week during all biodiesel use. “Keep the tank near full so there’s a minimum amount of air in the tank, which can lead to water intrusion,” says Rick Hall with Case Construction Equipment.
  • Check the engine oil dipstick daily to ensure the level is maintained between the normal minimum and maximum, says Case. If the oil level exceeds the maximum, verify the increase is not due to overfill. If not, do not use the machine and immediately contact your dealer.
  • If you’re about to mothball a machine for a bit, drain all the biodiesel out and run it on regular diesel for 20 hours. “And run it with diesel for the first 30 hours of use. Then you can use biodiesel once again,” Hall says.
  • The use of B20 will likely result in a 1 to 3 percent loss in power, but don’t adjust the injection system in an effort to boost power. “Average operators should not notice the power loss of B20,” Deere’s Terry Oftedal says.
  • Clean up any biodiesel that spills on a machine; leaving it can harm the paint job.
  • Filter due diligence is a must when initially using biodiesel. Most manufacturers recommend filter changes with every tank for the first 200 to 250 hours of use.
  • Be aware that some manufacturers specify specific products for biodiesel. For example, Cummins Filtration Biodiesel Winter Conditioner is the only biodiesel fuel additive Cummins approves for winter conditions.

Quality control
Engine manufacturers are citing the following in their biodiesel use directives:
ASTM D6751: The U.S. spec for B100 biodiesel. The biodiesel used in blends should meet this spec. There currently is no established spec for a biodiesel blend.

BQ-9000: A voluntary accreditation program established the National Biodiesel Board. There are two BQ-9000 categories: accredited producer and certified marketer. Accredited producers adhere to standards for biodiesel production, sampling, testing, storage and shipping. Certified marketers, who sell biodiesel and biodiesel blends, assure they handle the fuel properly.

Biodiesel by the numbers
148 – Number of active commercial biodiesel companies in the United States
41 – Number of states where these plants are located
1.39 billion – Annual production capacity of gallons of biodiesel produced by these plants
400 – The number of public and federal biodiesel fueling stations in the U.S., 75 of which are federally operated
$1 – Federal excise tax credit of up to $1 per gallon of biodiesel produced, created in by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and extended through 2008.
8 percent – How much less energy content biodiesel has per gallon than regular diesel fuel (actual percentage will vary by the amount of biodiesel used in a blend)
220 percent – How much more energy biodiesel yields than is used in its production
0.6 percent – The percentage of biodiesel used in 2006 as part of the total diesel fuel used
Sources: National Biodiesel Board, U. S. Government Accountability Office, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy

Do your homework
In addition to the websites listed on the chart on page 41, here are some other sources to investigate: