Better biodiesel – on and off the farm

OLD RESEARCH, NEW TECHNOLOGY, A GROWING MARKET

biodiesel has been accepted very slowly in Canada but the continued efforts of biodiesel’s supporters are making an impact in this country and abroad.

A decade ago, biodiesel blends were becoming common place on European and American farms but distribution, high costs, and a cold climate in Canada were providing considerable obstacles to adopting it here. That didn’t stop some people from trying to get it into the hands of the farmers who wanted it though. Neil McLaughlin is an agricultural engineering research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) who has been studying biodiesel and working with farmers for years.

understanding the challenges
During one two-year study that ended in 2007, McLaughlin worked with a number of farmers through an Ontario Soil & Crop Improvement Association demonstration project. The Biotractor study evaluated the practical problems that accompanied biodiesel use on six Ontario farms. During spring tillage and planting, he found the fuel consumption of a 100% blend of biodiesel was slightly higher than regular diesel but mostly, the differences were very small. Even harder to measure was the difference  in emissions between different tractors and under different conditions, so specialists were brought in from Environment Canada.

“There are so many things that effect emissions that it’s very hard to measure, but it’s generally accepted that biodiesel reduces some of the emissions,” says  McLaughlin.

When he first started to study biodiesel, McLaughlin noted the participating farmers’ greatest challenges were acquiring biodiesel from a supplier since it was still a relatively new product offered by fuel companies. As biodiesel has become  more popular however, McLaughlin says infrastructure is growing to satisfy the market. The next great challenge was poor performance in cold temperatures, one of the greatest setbacks to getting biodiesel established in Canada. Much like regular No. 2 or summer diesel, biodiesel will form solid crystals or precipitates of monoglycerides at low temperatures, which produce a gel like appearance of the fuel and plug fuel filters.

“As you can imagine, fuel with some solids in it, is not going to go through the filter,” explains McLaughlin. “The problem with biodiesel is, depending on the feed stock it’s made from, the cloud point is generally quite a bit higher than winter diesel.”

finding solutions
Ken Lawless is very familiar with the problems the biodiesel industry faces and is another individual working hard to address these issues as the CEO of BDR Technologies. Lawless says there is a lot of work being done to bring new feedstocks better cold flow properties, but his company is taking a different approach. They are currently piloting a membrane reactor module that can be used in biodiesel processing facilities to filter monoglycerides out of biodiesel, no matter what feedstock they originate from. Lawless says that when processors pump the methanol and oil emulsion through their membrane filter to make biodiesel, a higher quality biodiesel is produced at a lower cost than conventional filtering methods would require.

“Effectively, we give the processing facility a heart transplant so that the plant can utilize lower cost feedstock, lower their processing costs, and improve their margin,” explains Lawless. “It will help to keep soy one of the major feedstocks that can be used to make biodiesel economically, as the industry expands.”

Globally the biodiesel industry is already valued at $20 billion, and is mandated to grow from $1.1 billion to nearly $1.3 billion in the US. Not only is it set to expand generally in the States, says Lawless, but it’s expected to greatly expand in the highest quality markets following a new fuel standard set by the American Society for Testing and Materials last July. The new regulations downgraded the previous standard biofuel to a No. 2-B class fuel. A new No. 1-B grade requires more stringent controls for minor components that are suspected to have caused rare filter clogging. Monoglycerides used as minor components are limited to 0.40 percent. Lawless says it’s yet another example of how advances in the industry are making biodiesel better, even in the cold.

“These are very complicated systems and as time has gone on, the fuel quality has improved significantly,” notes Lawless. “The new standard will help propel an even higher quality, which will greatly reduce any of the cold weather issues and make sure there’s a high quality supply.”

Lawless says he fully expects that, in time, biodiesel blenders may very well abandon the No. 2 grade completely since the new, higher grade offers so many advantages in the cold. As researchers and processors alike work to continuously improve biodiesel and the quality issues of the past are completely erased, it brings good news to farmers as both feedstock suppliers and end  product consumers. •