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Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory is having a big impact

By Staff | Jul 28, 2017

By TERRENCE DWYER

terrencedwyer@yahoo.com

An evolving educational program at Iowa Central Community College led to the creation of a business that is serving the biofuels industry and an array of other clients – the Iowa Central Fuel Testing laboratory. The laboratory is the only facility of its type housed at any community college in the nation. It serves diverse clients all across Iowa, throughout the nation and internationally.

Dr. Donald Heck, who is director of the laboratory, said its emergence came about as the result of a collaborative effort by leaders at the college, Iowa politicians and array of business community visionaries.

“Everything fell together at the right place and at the right time,” Heck said.

An idea is born

Heck came to Iowa Central 12 years ago to create a biofuels technology program. That endeavor included establishing and outfitting a teaching laboratory for students.

“That laboratory included a lot of instrumentation that is used in the biofuels industry for quality control testing,” Heck said. “That caught the attention of a lot of industry people.”

As it happened, Iowa Central was approached in the fall of 2006 to assist in conducting the Two Million Mile Haul B20 biodiesel field trial with Decker Truck Line. That project explored the viability of biodiesel as a cost-effective option for use by commercial truck companies. In part as a result of that study, assorted biofuels industry leaders and organizations became aware of the research and testing capabilities that were coming together on the local college campus. The idea of creating an independent fuel testing laboratory at Iowa Central was born.

Having such a laboratory in Iowa made sense because the Hawkeye State was at the heart of the emerging biofuels industries. That Iowa Central already had key capabilities made it a good choice for bringing a laboratory online quickly.

“A lot of people see Iowa as a renewable fuels leader,” Heck said. “We’ve got a lot of biodiesel, we’ve got a lot of ethanol production. There is a lot of that industry here in the state. Iowa was a good place to do it.”

Turning that concept into a tangible reality required funding.

Iowa lawmakers, both at the state and federal levels, played key roles in finding the necessary monies. Two local lawmakers – state Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, and then-state Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge – helped sell the idea in the state Legislature. In Washington, D.C., then-U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and then-U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, championed the cause. Consequently, key financial support was made available by the Iowa Legislature and the U.S. Department of Energy. The project moved forward.

In 2010, the laboratory received accreditation and officially opened for business. It is located in the Bioscience and Health Sciences Building on Iowa Central’s main campus in Fort Dodge.

Multiple clients

The clients the Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory serves include the fuel/biofuel industries. It tests various motor vehicle fuels and home heating oils. But there is more to the story.

“Our client list is over 200,” Heck said. “I think we have had clients from about 40 states and five different countries.”

The laboratory’s agenda is diverse.

“We get a little bit of everything,” Heck said. “We get producers. We get retail clients. The corner gas stations down the street. There is an interest in checking the blend composition to make sure it’s 15 percent ethanol. We have had insurance companies. We might have a situation where somebody is claiming someone adulterated their tank with something and ruined their engine. We might help figure out what happened there. We might even get farmers who suspect bad fuel from their fuel barrel or their combine filter plugged up and they want to know why that is happening. A co-op might get a complaint about something they delivered. So we might help them find out what’s wrong with the fuel and where the issue came from.”

The products tested are varied.

“We actually do quite a bit,” Heck said. “We do biofuels. We also do regular petroleum fuels. We do a lot of diesel, biodiesel, ethanol. We do a lot of the blends. The gasoline has a lot of blends like E10, E15, E85, biodiesel blends.”

The laboratory offers an extensive array of testing options.

“We have at least 30 or 40 individual tests,” Heck said. “If you are a biodiesel producer, there is a set of requirements. There are 15 or 16 tests. You have to have a certificate of analysis that shows it passes all those tests. Same for ethanol.”

Other clients have their particular testing needs.

The number of tests that laboratory processes varies from month to month and is growing, according to Heck.

“We handle 100 to 150 samples a month,” he said. “Each one could require anywhere from one to 15 tests.”

The laboratory also provides important assistance to the state government. It is the state-designated testing laboratory for weights and measures for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Bureau of Weights and Measures.

“They are the ones who go around and monitor all the fuel pumps to make sure they are dispensing a gallon,” Heck said. “They also have fuel quality monitoring duties as well. If they are out in the field and any sample comes up suspect, they send the sample to us and we do the official testing for that.”

What sets the laboratory apart?

Heck said the Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory is succeeding in part because it addresses a need for reasonably priced testing and offers fast service.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years, especially with biodiesel, that industry is just getting off the ground,” Heck said. “A lot of this testing is not cheap. Before we came on the scene, it was not unusual to have to pay $2,000 or more for a full panel of tests and we can offer that for well under $1,000.”

The cost of testing is especially important as the biofuels producers try to establish a marketplace presence, according to Heck.

“For example, biofuels startups just don’t have the capital or resources to build their own internal laboratory to do all this testing on-site,” he said. “So, it helps to have a lab like us.”

Being a laboratory that can produce test results quickly also is a competitive advantage for the Iowa Central facility.

“With some of these other laboratories, clients may have to wait a week or two weeks or even more to get results and we can usually get those results out for typical testing within two or three days,” Heck said.

Low cost and rapid turnaround, consequently, are important factors that set the Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory apart from some of its competitors. So too, does highly personalized and attentive service.

Heck said his team tries to have the flexibility to address whatever evolving customer needs may necessitate.

“A lot of our clients are impressed with the level of personal service,” he said, noting that he and his team are readily available to answer questions. “We are willing to do special projects. If you call a major laboratory and it is not on their order list, they are not going to do it. We’ll sit down and talk with them and help them design a series of tests. We’ll work with them. We can be a supplemental laboratory to help with their research questions.”

Strongly positive customer response has allowed the program to grow to the point where expansion is likely soon.

“We could do more with more space,” Heck said. “The college is trying to help us figure out a way to move into a larger facility so we could take on more instrumentation, more capabilities and do even more volume and hire more people. We could become bigger and more diverse. As soon as we get the space issue figured out then we will expand.”

Meet Donald Heck

Heck was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, and graduated from Omaha Central High. He continued his education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where in 1992 he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology. He then studied at the University of Nebraska Medical Center where he earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology in 1998. Heck pursued additional education with post-doctoral work at Iowa State University in the department of biochemistry from 1998 to 2000. He taught in that department until 2005 when he came to ICCC in a teaching role and to create the biofuels program.

Heck said working with others to envision and establish the Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory has been immensely challenging.

“Starting a business is kind of a daunting task,” he said. “That’s a very different challenge than waking up and deciding what to lecture on that day. It has been amazingly successful. We have been more than successful beyond our imagination.”

He said being part of that process has been personally and professionally fulfilling for him.

“I have the satisfaction of running a successful business,” Heck said. “It’s not every day you really get to start a successful business. It’s the American dream.”

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