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11 min read

How Biofuels Have Changed the Fuels We Use Today: Part 1

How Biofuels Have Changed the Fuels We Use Today: Part 1

As a service to our customers, dealers and friends, Bell Performance hosts quarterly webinars on fuel topics of interest to them and their customers. The following is a transcript of a recent webinar I hosted on the topic of biofuels and the impact they have had on today's fuels. If you would like to view the archived webinar, you can watch it on our YouTube channel here..

This webinar was presented by Erik Bjornstad, Bell Performance technical information director.

Today’s topic, as you can see, is just talking about how biofuels have changed the fuels that we use today. Back in November we did a webinar where we wanted to talk about the general concepts of how the fuels of today really aren’t the same as they used to be and we talked about some of the major drivers of that change and the big differences in the fuel properties and then the implications that had for people who used the fuels, but we really didn’t have time to cover what’s probably the biggest difference between fuel today and fuel of 20 or 30 years ago, and that is the widespread presence of biofuels, like biodiesel and ethanol in those fields. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

We’re going to take a little journey. We wanted to explore a few of the issues in a little bit more details. The aspects we’re going to talk about are how and why they have become so commonplace in gasoline and diesel. We’re going to talk about the effects, both good and bad, because we’ll say that a number of times, nothing is 100% good or 100% bad. We’re going to talk about the effects that these have had on the fuels, some of the problems and issues that might be manifesting themselves where you’re at, and then some of the best practice recommendations to try and solve some of those problems.

Changes in the Fuels We Use Today

First thing, we’ve already said, today’s fuels are not the same, fuels are a lot different than they were from yesteryears. The 2 big major reasons for those changes are increased demand on both a nationwide and a worldwide basis and government regulation. That’s a big one, we’re going to talk about that in a little bit more detail later. Those 2 forces, essentially, have come together, and they’ve given us fuels that don’t have as long storage life, they are more susceptible to microbial contamination, they don’t burn as cleanly as they used to. In many ways the fuels of today they’re of lower quality than they were in the past.

We’re going to talk a little bit about the major reasons why that is with respect to these biofuels.

Ethanol Legislation

When we talk about biofuels, we’re talking about biodiesel and we’re talking about ethanol. The biggest drivers for those ending up in our fuels are a couple of legislative pieces, The Clean Air Act and The Renewable Fuels Standard. These both together form, essentially, a legislative mandate to force change in fuel properties to help clean up the environment. The clean air act mandated the removal of sulfur from diesel fuel which was the major driver, or rather contributor, for acid rain. It also required a change in gasoline composition to force the creation of these oxygenated gasolines which, when they burn, will produce lower emissions and help urban air pollution, essentially.

The Renewable Fuels Act came around in 2005 and this has really … really defined what was expected in more of a concrete way. Basically The Renewable Fuels Act, one of the relevant aspects of it says, in the year 2016 or whatever, The United States is going to use X billions of gallons of fuels derived from renewable energy sources which, for our purposes, means ethanol and biodiesel.

The reason we have them is because of these 2 legislative mandates. The nuance to remember here is whenever the average person considers ethanol and gasoline, they always blame the EPA. Now the EPA certainly acts as an enforcement or an implementation arm but the EPA is not to blame for having ethanol in our gasoline, congress is to blame. Congress is the one making the mandate and the EPA has to follow the directions of congress as far as what congress says should happen. The EPA does get a bad rap a lot of times but in this case it’s not 100% their fault.


Let’s talk a little bit about these 2 things, let’s talk about the diesel side first. Talking about biodiesel in today’s diesel fuels.

Okay, now the first thing we have to remember is that most of the on-road diesel fuel that you see today, will have some kind of biodiesel content in it. Biodiesel itself, we call it a diesel-like fuel. It’s essentially fat and oil that has been chemically converted into something that burns closely enough to diesel fuel that you can put it in a diesel engine and run that engine without too many problems.

What we started off saying was most of the diesel you’ll find today already has low levels of biodiesel mixed into it. The rules today basically say you can put up to 5% biodiesel content into diesel fuel and not disclose it, essentially, in any way. You could have 2 or 3 or 4% biodiesel content in the diesel that you’re buying at the pump and it doesn’t have to be changed with respect to its labeling in any way. You can just say diesel fuels.

The rationale behind that is they say, “Well, diesel, number 2 diesel fuel is defined by the … by its properties and if you put biodiesel into it in 2 or 3%, it doesn’t change those properties so you don’t have to label it.” You’re probably already using biodiesel to some extent without even knowing it.

Why has it penetrated the market in the way that it has? Well, because it’s made from fat and oil it’s considered a renewable fuel so it has a renewable fuel status. That plays petty well politically. Politicians are always looking for ways to tell consumers, to tell their constituents, “Hey I’m green, I’m environmentally friendly.” It tends to be a positive political play to be in support of these renewable fuels and it also satisfies the RFS the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Congress dictates that a certain amount of renewable fuels have to be used each year, putting 2 or 3 or 4% or more biodiesel helps to meet that mandate. When I say other political mandates, it’s not just congress, we’re also talking about what I call mid and low level politicians. The governor of Florida, Rick Scott says, “Florida is going to be more green and we’re going to direct our State agencies to buy more biofuels.”

Well, when he says that, then the county managers and the other agencies all the way on down the line all fall into line to try and be compliant with Governor Rick Scott’s mandate and so it’s not just congress saying it, it’s all of these other politicians basically driving this mandate for having more renewable fuels.

Biodiesel: The Good

Let’s talk about the good things about biodiesel. Well, apart from the economics issue of it, biodiesel from a fuel property stand point is a pretty good fuel, it burns pretty well, like conventional diesel fuel, which means that you can put it in up to 20% concentration which is what’s called B20, you can mix it into diesel fuel up to 20% and have virtually no difference operationally speaking. Because of that, it won’t affect your diesel engine warranties, for example. That was one of the big concerns that they had when it was first being introduced, is whether it would invalidate warranties. Well if you have B20 that is properly within spec, it’s not legal for an engine warranty company to say, “Ah, well you used B20 so you’re out of luck with your warranty claim.”

Biodiesel produces environmentally friendly levels of emissions; in other words, it produces less emissions which is one of the whole reasons why they want to use it. It replaces petroleum which is partly a political issue, but if you’re mixing 20% bio or 5% biodiesel, then that means you’re using 20% or 5% less oil and that’s always a good play from a political standpoint.

Then last major one, you can see high lubricity. When they were changing all of the diesel fuel over to ultra-low sulfur, one of the big concerns was the fact that they were stripping out the lubricity of the diesel fuel which is an essential property that’s needed to keep injectors and fuel pumps and other parts from wearing out. Well, if you take as little as 2% biodiesel, you put that into your ultra-low sulfur diesel, you restore all of the lubricity that you had lost before. That’s a great thing for diesel uses because it eliminates the need for them to look at separate lubricity additives.

Biodiesel: The Bad

It’s definitely brought some good things to the market place. Now let’s talk about some of the downsides that it has.

Okay, first downside, mainly, what we’re talking about, we’re talking about microbes, we’re talking about water, we’re talking about stability and we’re talking about cold weather performance.

Okay, biodiesel is an excellent food for microbes, microbes love it. Biodiesel blends promote greater chance of microbial growth. They also increase the tendency for that diesel fuel to absorb water, which, since we just mentioned microbes, any time you’re talking about water you always have to be concerned about microbes. Biodiesel is more hygroscopic than diesel fuel normally is. It increases water absorption and then stability in cold flow performance, up north, cold weather performance, we’re down here in Florida, up north, cold weather performance in terms of gelling in cold weather, it’s a big concern.

Depending on what feed-stock, what type of oil you make biodiesel from, you can have some biodiesels that gel and thicken at 40 or 50 degrees or 30 degrees which, if you’re up in Michigan or Ohio, or if you’re a farmer in Iowa, that’s a big problem.

Then stability, biodiesel itself, inherently has poor stability tendencies that regular diesel fuel has. That’s the good and bad about biodiesel.

Ethanol and Gasoline

Ethano_free_gas_easier_said.jpgLet’s talk about ethanol and gasoline, that’s the other major one. That’s the one that probably gets more play in the media, more play with the average consumer.

Virtually all on-road gasoline contains some amount of ethanol. It typically will contain up to 10%. In some States, you find up to 15% and then you have these E85 pumps which have 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline and those are specifically for flex fuel vehicles that can run specifically on E85.

Now, contrary to popular conception, ethanol and gasoline is not a 21st Century invention, so to speak. Ethanol has actually been used in gasoline engines since pretty much, since the very beginning, the model T, Henry Ford 1909, it was designed to run on either ethanol or gasoline. The amount of ethanol that the country has used, if you tracked that through the 20th century it’s gone up and down depending on whether gas or oil was more or less expensive. It’s been around for a lot longer that people realized. Why are we using so much of it now? Well, in order to understand that, we’ve got to go back to those government regulations.

The Clean Air Act

1992, they make an amendment to The Clean Air Act that directs … They say, “We have to reduce urban air pollution from gasoline, you know, from gas powered cars and the way we’re going to do that is we’re going to require them to make reformulated gasoline or bout- sometimes called boutique gasolines.” What they’re going to do is they’re going to mandate that they mix these things called oxygenates, fuel oxygenates are going to blend those into the gasoline and when you burn that new gasoline, it burns cleaner from an emissions standpoint, so, so far so good. It is certainly an admirable noble goal that they have right there.

What is an oxygenate? Well, and oxygenate, from a chemistry standpoint there are lots of different things that you can put into gasoline to function as oxygenates. All they need to have is a high oxygen content. You increase the oxygen content of the gasoline, you burn it, you produce less carbon monoxide and other harmful urban air pollutants and over time, hopefully, you help to re-mediate some of this air pollution problem.

1992 congress says “You’ve got to start doing to.” They say, “Okay, well, what can we put in it.” Well, the first oxygenate that they considered was this thing called MTBE which is an acronym for methyl tert-butyl ether. MTBE was already being used in low levels in the nations gas supply as an antiknock agent, as an octane, something to raise octane rating. Mainly because of when they start phasing out the lead. They start taking the lead out around 1979, well, late ‘70s and they start blending MTBE in there to try and replace some of that octane. Now they say, well, we can also use it as an oxygenate. They start blending it in around, typically around 10% volume and at its peak in 1999, they’re using 8.5 million gallons every single day in the nations fuel supply, so, so far so good. Everything seems to be great, except, they start getting reports that MTBE is contaminating drinking water.

Now they’re not so concerned that MTBE causes cancer or causes birth defects or something like that. The biggest thing that they’re concerned about is the fact that just a little bit of it makes drinking water taste really, really bad. When we’re talking a little bit, we’re talking about like parts per billion.

There was an interesting stat that I read where if you took all of the drinking water that was needed to supply the drinking water needs for the entire 7 billion population of the world for their entire lives, 80 years, you took all of that water, you would need less than 8 thousand of MTBE to make that entire water amount undrinkable. Contrast 8,000 gallons to the fact that they were using 8-and-a-half million gallons per day and you’ve got a situation here.

The EPA says, “Well, we can’t keep using this anymore.” They start phasing it out, States start banning it in their own road fuel around 2005 but they still have to satisfy the congressional mandate, so what are they going to do? Well they have to have a replacement, a replacement oxygenate. Anything that they replace, because they have options, but any replacement that they choose has to be inexpensive to make, you have to be able to produce it easily in large amounts, it has to be safe to handle because you’re going to produce it in once place and you’re going to get distributed out to all corners of the nation and has to be easy to transport.


ethanol-farm-equipment.jpgThe thing that they settle on was ethyl alcohol, ethanol. Ethanol meets, from a logistic standpoint, it meets all of those requirements. It’s easy to produce. It’s safe to handle, it’s relatively inexpensive to produce, all things considered, so ethanol becomes the replacement, and again, we said nothing is 100% good and nothing is 100% bad. Well, same thing applies to ethanol, ethanol has some good points. It’s got a high octane content, which means like MTBE, they’re able to not only use it as an oxygenate but they are also able to use it to help make up some of the octane requirement of the finished gasoline.

For the refiners that good, if they’re trying to make an 89 octane gasoline, well, maybe they start with an 86 base stock and they add their 10% ethanol, and depending on how the math works out, maybe that gives them the 3 extra points and so they’ve killed 2 birds with one stone. Second good thing of course is that it is easily made from corn and other plants. It’s been made by people for millennia so obviously people know how to make it.

Right now, as of 2014 the nation was using about 14 billion gallons of ethanol per year. As you can see from the graph, that graph graphs the amount of ethanol production in the United States throughout the year, relative to year and you can see that around 2006, 2007, the curve really started spiking upwards. Now we’re at a point where ethanol production is leveling off because we reached the tipping point relative to amount of gases used in the nation and the amount that they’re supposed to put in, they’ve reached the saturation point. Now an interesting thing to consider is that for years, when you looked at 2008, 2009, 20010 on up, every year, the amount of ethanol that was going to be used kept going up and up and up.

Now, they’re at the point where they say, “Well, we can’t increase it anymore.” Congress has actually, for the past couple of years, been debating whether they should scale back ethanol use which again completely reverses the trend of the recent past.

Now the thing to consider here, and this is something that we’re going to talk about when we touch on a couple of the problems with ethanol, the thing to consider is that The Renewable Fuel Standard says, in a given year, the nation is going to use X billion, 14 billion gallons of ethanol is what the nation has to use. They have to take that 14 billion gallons and mix it in at a 10% max or 15% max in the nation’s gasoline supply. If you can project accurately how much gasoline the nation uses, then your math works out and everybody’s happy. However, the government has been putting pressure, continual pressure on automakers to make more and more efficient cars. You hear about the CAFE standards and the requirement that by the year 2035 the average fuel economy has to be 50 miles per gallon, something like that.

Well, the automakers have done a better than expected job at doing that and so we’re actually using less gas now as a nation than they were expecting. You’ve got less gas to mix this ethanol in.

They now have a dilemma because they still want the nation to use 14 billion gallons but they have less gas to put it in, well the mathematical solution is just increase the percentage. Well unfortunately, because people tend to take gas for their car and use it in their lawnmower and their small equipment, and their boats, things that you’re not supposed to put it in, you’ve got a problem. You can’t just change the percentage. When you hear them talking about congress, debating the ethanol mandate “the ethanol mandate” that’s the underlying issue that they’re discussing there.

Continue reading How Biofuels Have Changed the Fuels We Use Today: Part 2!

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