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ENERGY WEEK: ICCC’s biodiesel testing lab in operation

By Staff | Sep 25, 2009

With a stop watch in one hand, Josh Hayes, of Coalville, a lab tech for the Biodiesel Testing Lab on the Iowa Central Community College campus in Fort Dodge, tracks how long a biodiesel fuel mixture flows from one beaker to another, through a fuel filter, at -6 degrees Fahrenheit. To be successful, the oil must complete the transfer in 60 seconds. Hayes is conducting cold flow studies for the National Biodiesel Board. This sample is a mix of +10 diesel fuel, with Reg 5 soy biodiesel, blended at 50 percent. The test failed and would be reconducted at -5 degrees, Hayes said.

After several years of planning, helped along by a grant of $984,000, the biodiesel testing lab at Iowa Central Community College is active and servicing its first contracted work.

Under the guidance of Don Heck, lab director, who also oversees the college’s entire biofuels program, the lab is working on a cold flow research project for the National Biodiesel Board. The test project determines the temperature in which any diesel fuel will begin to cloud, or gel, in cold temperature.

Heck explained that all biodiesel and diesel fuels will begin to gel, or freeze at different temperatures. Some biodiesel blended with tallow, or animal fat, he offered as an example, can gel at room temperature. “It acts more like a stick of butter,” Heck said, “and can be a real problem.

The project includes testing four different grades of diesel fuel (-40, -30-, -15 and +10), blended with seven different kinds of biodiesel including refined restaurant grease, distilled soy biodiesel, extruded biodiesel, plain soy biodiesel and three grades of soy biodiesel – Reg 0, Reg 5 and Reg 10. Each of the diesel fuel and biodiesel mixtures will be blended at zero, 2, 5, 11, 20, 50 and 100 percent and individually tested.

Once the project is completed, Heck said, the lab would begin its process of becoming a BQ-9000 certified lab, meaning that it will adhere to a strict testing protocol so that its performance on the commercial market will be accurate and consistent. One goal for the lab is to do work for Iowa’s Weights and Measures Bureau for which the lab must have BQ-9000 certification status.

Don Heck, left, director of the Biodiesel Testing Lab on the Iowa Central Community College campus in Fort Dodge, watches lab tech Josh Hayes, or Coalville, as he prepares to run a cold flow test for the National Biodsiesel Board.

Over the next six month, the lab will solicit fuel samples from various biodiesel producers to conduct free tests to determine that its equipment is properly calibrated and the staff is properly trained in testing fuels so that a consistent testing result is produced.

To maintain its certification, Heck added, ASTM International, the lab would also participate in a “round-robin” type of testing feature that will periodically require a number of labs running tests on the same fuel samples to assure that each lab gets the same results. ASTM is an international organization that sets uniform standards for testing a variety of materials, products and systems.

Heck said although the process seems to be slow, “things are happening and we’re moving closer to the day when we can start charging a fee for our tests.”

Heck said the purpose of the lab is to eventually be self-sustaining, a commercial testing lab for biofuels.

He added that there are many small manufacturers of biodiesel fuels who are required to have their products tested, but don’t have the resources to install their own testing labs.

In addition, there are other larger producers with labs who are required to periodically send their fuel samples to outside labs to assure their labs are accurate. Heck hopes to capture some of that business, as well.

A positive future

Heck said he is confident there will always be a market for renewable fuels.

“I think there are enough (people) in society who are behind renewable fuels. Some will use it whether it’s more expensive or not. I think people are appreciating energy more and not taking it for granted as in the past.”

In addition, Heck thinks that politically, it is increasingly more unpopular to buy crude oil from nations who hate the U.S.; and noted that fossil fuels are a limited quantity. They will eventually be used up.

Finally, he said if one considers how Big Oil is now investing in renewable fuels, one must think that renewable fuels are here to stay.

“As long as Iowa has motor vehicles,” Heck said, “we’ll be testing fuels. And we’re not just for Iowa. There are other states that don’t have their own state-testing facilities, so we might pick up their work.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext. 453 or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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