Fleets turn to biodiesel for a host of reasons — from immediately reducing their carbon footprint to providing much-needed lubricity for today’s diesel engines.
For the fourth year in a row, fleet respondents in the 2021 Fleet Purchasing Outlook Survey ranked biodiesel as their No. 1 choice for current alternative fuels use. Both biodiesel and renewable diesel were listed as popular options for future use as well. According to Chris Lyon, NTEA director of fleet relations, results of this year’s survey indicate 2021acquisition activity will focus more on replacement than expansion.
“This is consistent with expectations, given the fleet purchasing cycle peaked in 2018-19,” Lyon says. “Regarding alternative fuel options planned for the year ahead, biodiesel continues to rank among the most widely accepted, representing a significant area of interest for a growing number of fleets. Nearly 40% of respondents anticipate fuel-type changes for 2021, an escalation that may be partially attributed to increased usage of all biodiesel blends.”
The introduction of biodiesel blends to fleets began three decades ago as the then-fledgling National Soy Diesel Development Board, which soon thereafter became the National Biodiesel Board, was demonstrating the new fuel to virtually anyone who would give it a chance. Since NBAs born in Missouri — stemming from an investment by the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council in 1991 — and was housed in the basement of the Missouri Soybean Association headquarters during its earliest years, beginning in its own backyard seemed as natural as the biofuel it was promoting.
Michael Bernich, fleet manager with St. Louis Lambert International Airport since2000 and a city of St. Louis employee since1978, says the airport’s early use of biodiesel precedes the biodiesel board’s formation by a few years. According to Bernich, the airport began an experimental program in the late1980s with 20 vehicles using blends of 5% to40% biodiesel. Through this, it was determined that 20% biodiesel (B20) was the best mix for the geographical area. Today, most original equipment manufacturers approve the use of B20.
In 1989, B20 fueled roughly 175 vehicles in St. Louis, according to Bernich. In 1994, as the NSDDB was established and considering whether to change its name to NBB in order to broaden its feedstock scope beyond just soybean oil, the city of St. Louis became a signatory to an agreement with the U.S. Energy Department to participate in the Clean Cities Program, promoting the use of alternative fuels. One year later, the city formally implemented the use of biodiesel in several departments. That same year, Lambert Airport made the decision to fuel all diesel-powered equipment in its fleet with B20 biodiesel.
More Traditional Benefits
The greatest benefits Lambert Airport reaps from its biodiesel use include the fact that B20 results in exhaust indexes that are well below the federal allowable maximum levels, according to Bernich. Also, biodiesel’s lubricity — even in much lower blends than B20 — increases injector pump and fuel injector life.
Scott Fenwick, the technical director with NBB, says even 1% biodiesel can provide the lubricity needed in today’s ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) fuel. Sulfur is a lubricating agent but, starting in themid-2000s when OEMs were faced with meeting federal regulations to reduce on-road heavy-duty vehicle emissions for particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur would foul sensitive catalysts in the emerging after-treatment systems deployed to accomplish this.
“ULSD fuels are definitely deficient in fuel lubricity,” Fenwick says. “For today’s high-pressure common rail engines, a little bit of biodiesel goes a long way for fuel pumps, injectors and all moving parts — even the pistons within each cylinder.”
Although just a little biodiesel can provide all the lubricity needed in modern diesel engines, Fenwick says there are plenty of additional benefits from going to higher blends, starting with biodiesel’s higher cetane rating for improved combustion.
“Cetane measures the ignition delay in an engine,” Fenwick says. “The higher the cetane, the lower the delay, which improves cold-start operability, combustion and emissions.”
He adds that fuel specifications are such that biodiesel has a seven-point advantage over diesel fueling cetane.
“That’s not to say all diesel fuel is 40,” he says. “The average is higher, just like the average for biodiesel is higher than its spec as well.” Even at a B20 level, biodiesel’s higher cetane rating has performance and emissions benefits over straight diesel fuel, Fenwick says.
In addition, as an oxygenated fuel, biodiesel significantly reduces particulate matter emissions and unburnt hydrocarbons. Less black soot plumes pouring out of diesel exhaust pipes very important, especially in urban areas where air quality is of great concern, and particularly for older model trucks not outfitted with diesel particulate filters. But this feature of biodiesel is also important in newer vehicles that do have these particle traps.
“Burning higher blends of biodiesel means less soot generated during combustion, and less soot means less plugging of those filters,” Fenwick says.
The energy security aspect of homegrown fuels like biodiesel was, at one time, an extremely attractive selling point for the fuel. Remembering what the U.S. energy situation was, even just 15years ago before the shale revolution that increased domestic oil production capacity, one of the most popular reasons why biodiesel use skyrocketed in popularity early on was its ability to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Although this reason may seem anachronistic to some today, it is still important to others.
But perhaps the most relatable benefit to people rather than to machines, equipment, markets , the economy or even the environment, is that operators complain far less about the harsh smell of diesel exhaust —and what that smell might be doing toothier bodies after long-term exposure. This was something Bernich and his staff noticed immediately upon switching to biodiesel.
“We have a big equipment garage, and most of our diesel units are parked in here,” he says. “We start the equipment and then open the garage door. Once we went to biodiesel blends for these vehicles, it smelled like French fries. Right away, the smell was much less offensive.”
As established, there is a variety of reasons fleet managers are drawn to biodiesel. Some may grow or fade in popularity over time as society’s needs change or as the market, equipment and the petroleum fuels into which biodiesel is blended evolve.
“Today, if a fleet manager is considering making the change, it is all about sustainability, reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, climate change, and reducing their carbon footprint,” Fenwick says. “Historically, the reasons change. Back under the Obama administration, the key buzzwords were ‘green’ and ‘sustainable.’ When the Trump administration took over, they didn’t want to hear those words. They didn’t move the needle for them. So then, the buzzwords became things like ‘domestic jobs’ and ‘energy security, ‘which biodiesel is good at as well. Under Biden, it’s all about climate change and GHG emissions. Biodiesel has a great story to tell.” And clearly biodiesel is adaptive, too.
Fenwick says some fleet managers may turn to biodiesel because of pressure from outside forces, whether government regulations or customer demands. “Isay that because some of the biggest global companies today — Amazon, Google, Microsoft — they have corporate sustainability goals,” he says. “ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) programs are key words today. They’re trying to reduce their carbon footprint by 20% or 50%. Some even want to be carbon neutral by 2050. Biodiesel is the easiest, lowest-cost option to reduce carbon bar none.”
Today, Donnell Rehagen is the CEO of NBB, but 20 years ago he was responsible for managing the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) fleet. He says the push to “green” MoDOT’s fleet was strong in 2000, and biodiesel was identified as being one of the best ways to do this. Rehagen was instrumental in switching the MoDOT fleet to biodiesel blends.
Today, MoDOT uses more ethanol and biodiesel fuel a year — 3 million gallons of E85 and B20 —than all other state agencies combined. “That’s enough fuel to drive a car to Mars and back,” the department states on its website.
In the past five years, MoDOT has used more than 10 million gallons of biodiesel fuel. From April through October, the department uses B20 and requires its fuel suppliers to provide fuel blended at that level.
Certain jurisdictions, whether at the local, state or even national level, are banning the sale of new internal combustion engines (ICE) as soon as 2035. The U.K.is one of the nations on this growing list, and California is perhaps the most notable big state to do so.
“If you operate fleet and the government is planning to ban ICE, then you’ve got to come up with an alternative pretty quickly on why this may not be the best idea,” Fenwick says. “There are other options. Biodiesel is the lowest-cost option. There’s no additional cost to the infrastructure, as there is with electric vehicles, and you don’t need to purchase new vehicles. It’s what the software world would call ‘plug and play.’”
Some in the fuels industry are embracing electrification while others might be frightened by what it means to them, their business and, not to be hyperbolic, their world view.
“At the NBB, we’re embracing it because when we hear a community, state or jurisdiction announce plans to electrify, to us that means they’re having a discussion about carbon reduction,” Fenwick says. “Now, we can have an open dialogue. We can ask, ‘Why do you want to electrify?’”
Invariably, the answer will be to reduce carbon emissions. But for the most part, the ability to turnover an entire bus or heavy-duty fleet to electric just doesn’t exist right now. Even if it did, or in those small instances where it does, the exorbitant cost would be and often is prohibitive. This is where biodiesel’s opportunity lies in a future seemingly intent on electrification.
The time value of carbon is a phrase gaining in popularity among biodiesel circles. “Emissions are cumulative,” Fenwick says. “So, anything you can do today to reduce your carbon footprint, whether it’s by 5%, 20% or 50%, will provide more benefit in 10 or 20years than waiting until you can go all electric.”
In other words, some carbon reduction today is better than more carboreduction tomorrow. The seamless switch to B20 can immediately cut a fleet’s carbon emissions by 16%, on average, according to NBB.
As electrification pushes its way into light- and eventually heavy-duty on-road markets, organizations like the NBB are reconsidering what types of fleets to target in today’s environment. While the case for biodiesel in cutting carbon emissions from on-road fleets today is a strong one, Fenwick says NBB is having important, fruitful discussions with “whole new applications that haven’t traditionally embraced biodiesel.” These include locomotives and ship engines.
In 2020, the International Maritime Organization implemented a drastic sulfur-reduction requirement in marine fuel. The organization has been proactively investigating GHG reductions from marine vessels as well. This past June, the organization adopted key mandatory measures to reduce ships ’carbon intensity.
“They have become increasingly interested and are doing their own studies involving biodiesel and biodiesel blends,” Fenwick says. “And they’re not stopping at B20.” He says some ship fleet operators are performing trials on B50.
“That seems to be the new norm heading forward,” Fenwick says. “Unlike on-road, where we have fuel specifications to blends up to B20, marine use is looking to blow through that and head to B50right away.” Whereas on-road fuel specs in America and some other global regions are developed through AST International, marine fuel standards are governed through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).Marine fuels fall under ISO 8217.
Several years ago, Fenwick and NBB approached the group in charge of the marine fuel spec and “had a limited amount of success,” he says. Although blends up to B7 were eventually approved, there was no interest from the marine sector to go beyond that.
“But in the past year, we have been reengaged — and at their request this time,” Fenwick says. Because the ISO8217 committee is interested in going to B50 in a couple of the marine fuel grades, this would involve a complete rewrite of their fuel specifications.
“It’s a good feeling,” Fenwick says. “Previously, it was NBB trying to drive the issue. Nowadays, we’ve got engine manufacturers — and these are huge engines onboard these ships — sending us their data wanting help to review it. And we’re seeing no issues.”
On-road B100 Use
B20 has long been the blend target NBB and biodiesel advocates have sought for on-road fleets. “I think that’s the bar, we would say,” Fenwick says. “There are some fleets that haven’t quite migrated to that and then there are others that say, ‘Hey, the bar isn’t high enough, what else can we do?’”
In those cases, progressive fleets have options. They can incorporate blends of biodiesel and renewable diesel likeRD80, which is 80% hydrotreated biofuel and 20% methyl ester biodiesel. Other fleets are finding success utilizing 100%biodiesel (B100) in tandem with Optimus Technologies’ Vector System. Although fleets may find complete success utilizing B100 without any changes or adjustments, the Vector System can facilitate and address any issues that may arise, such as fuel gelling and filter plugging in the dead of winter. The cloud point, the point at which the fuel begins to crystalize in cold temperatures, of any given biodiesel is highly dependent on the feedstock used to produce it. Thus, biodiesels with higher cloud points may experience cold-flow issues when used alone during the wintertime. One of the ways the Optimus system addresses this is through heated tanks and starting the vehicle on petroleum diesel. Once the system aswarm, it switches to B100.
In Missouri’s neighbor to the north, the city of Ames, Iowa, has been successfully using B20 for its vehicle fleet, including fire trucks and ambulances, for more than 11 years. But after completing a successful B100 pilot program last year with five of its existing trucks, the city decided to scale up its carbon-reduction efforts by purchasing seven new dump trucks equipped with Optimus’ Vector System to run on B100.
“We found that using B100 biodiesel combined with technology offered by Optimus Technologies gave us the best cost-benefit ratio in reducing our GHG emissions,” says Rich Iverson, fleet support manager for the city of Ames. “The beauty of this approach is its simplicity. Equipping our existing Class 7and 8 diesel dump trucks to run on pure biodiesel was an immediate, economical way to significantly reduce our carbon intensity. Biodiesel offers us an easy, reliable and affordable solution for use in our existing diesel fleet with our existing fueling infrastructure.”
Several other fleets across the country are also demonstrating use of B100 in the Optimus system. For instance, Archer Daniels Midland Co. has been running trial in five of its heavy-duty trucks powered by B100 produced at ADM’s Mexico, Missouri, biodiesel refinery. Ina program supported by ADM, Optimus Technologies, the American Lung Association, NBB, the Illinois Soybean Association and the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, each of the trucks is expected to log between 160,000 to180,000 miles during the trial. By usingB100, each truck will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 500,000 pounds.
Even the record-setting cold in February2021 — the same weather event that shut Texas’ power grid down — presented zero issues for the ADM fleet running on B100.
“This pilot, using ADM trucks and ADM-produced biodiesel, has the potential to validate technology that could dramatically increase the use of environmentally friendly biodiesel across the trucking industry,” says Steve Finn, ADM’s vice president for trucking. “We’re excited to be part of this project, and we’re proud to see the technology proving itself — including in extreme weather.”
While B20 reduces a fleet’s carbon emissions by 16% on average, according to NBB, the switch toB100 can cut carbon emissions by an average of 80% — today.