By John MacKenna
Heating oil dealers may soon be able to sell heating oil that contains 20 percent biodiesel with the full blessing of ASTM International, the recognized standards-setting body for petroleum fuels.
The B20 standard is important because heating oil that is 20 percent biodiesel can compete more effectively with natural gas on critical environmental standards than can a fuel with a lower biodiesel blend level.
This is the heating oil industry’s second ASTM initiative regarding biodiesel blends. In 2008, ASTM approved a ballot that rewrote the heating oil specification itself, ASTM D396. ASTM certified that heating oil blended with 5 percent biodiesel still meets the ASTM D396 specification. In other words, B5 heating oil can be used in all heating oil applications, assuming the biodiesel that is used meets the ASTM D6751 biodiesel specification. Heating oil blends that contain up to 5 percent biodiesel are eligible for marketing under the National Biodiesel Board’s Bioheat® trademark.
Steve Howell, Chairman of ASTM’s Biodiesel Task Force, recently told Oil & Energy that ASTM began consideration of a B20 specification virtually the moment the organization rewrote the heating oil specification to include B5. This time around, the ballot does not call for rewriting the heating oil specification but rather for adding two new grades to D396 for B6 to B20. The new grades would be for 500 ppm maximum sulfur oil (S500) and 5,000 ppm maximum sulfur oil (, S5000).
An approved ASTM specification for B6-B20 would allow various regulatory bodies, such as fire marshals, Occupational Safety & Health Administration officials, insurance companies and others to formally support or accept the fuel, as well as the equipment manufacturers. It would also provide confidence for consumers that B6-B20 will work in their existing home heating oil systems as well as, if not better than, -traditional oil.
Heating oil trade associations have been pressing hard for ASTM approval of the B6-B20 grade, because they believe the fuel will become more attractive to policy makers, regulators and homeowners when the emissions are cleaner. A B20 blend emits around 15 percent less lifecycle carbon dioxide than traditional heating oil, making the carbon emissions virtually identical to those of natural gas. Equivalency at the burner tip with natural gas can be used to blunt any pro-natural gas favoritism by policymakers and regulators.
“We have virtually every heating oil trade association on record saying they want a B20 standard immediately,” Howell said. “They need this to compete with natural gas, and they need it to be official. The market is begging for this.” That urgency from the industry matters at ASTM, and Howell has been able to secure speedy processing of the ballot.
The proposed new fuel grade was submitted for its first ballot in June, and it failed, as most first ballots do. “All the large petroleum companies vote at ASTM, and if they incorporate biodiesel blends, then they need to feel comfortable they can stand behind the fuel that meets the ASTM standards,” Howell explained. “As such, they are a very conservative group, and you need a lot of data to pass a ballot.”
Howell and Victor Turk, leader of ASTM’s Burner Fuels Committee, have received permission to resubmit the ballot at both the subcommittee and full committee level this fall. If they can gain unanimous support of the full committee, ASTM can issue an official, modified version of ASTM D396 with the new B6-B20 grade this fall.
More Bio, Less Sulfur
Biodiesel blends up to B20 constitute one half of the heating oil industry’s emissions overhaul. The other piece is reducing the sulfur content. New York State has already switched to an ultra low sulfur heating oil requirement that limits sulfur content to 15 parts per million (ppm), which matches the specification for on-road diesel. Seven other important heating oil states – Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont – will switch to ultra low sulfur heating oil on or before July 1, 2018.
Biodiesel is already used at the B20 level in on-road and off-road diesel, as that specification was issued by ASTM in 2008—over six years ago, but the heating oil industry is proposing more intensive usage. “For on-road and off-road it was not anticipated that we’d have biodiesel in all fuel. Instead it would be a niche product,” Howell explained. In heating, however, the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) and others are contemplating widespread adoption as a way of making heating oil more compatible with greenhouse gas reduction policies.
Data on B20 heating oil is plentiful, because the heating oil industry has been targeting the B20 blend level for about a decade and has put B20 through numerous tests. “The data package is one of the best I have seen in my 20 years at ASTM,” Howell said.
Much of the research has been conducted or overseen by Dr. Thomas A. Butcher, a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, N.Y. The first step in Butcher’s research was to test the combustion, and he and other researchers determined that B20 blends burned effectively. This was followed by extensive field-testing that used B20 blends in homes, including a four-year test using homes in the Catskills region of New York State. “That was very successful with both indoor and outdoor tests,” he said.
The research team also surveyed heating oil marketers who have registered with the National Biodiesel Board to use the Bioheat® logo and found that B20 is already being widely used with few, if any reported problems. “We got about 70 responses, and what came out of that was something like 20,000 customers that are using blends at the B20 level,” Butcher said. “This has clearly gone beyond lab testing and beyond field trials. Twenty percent blends are now commonly used.”
No Fuel Pump Problems
Researchers have also zeroed in on the materials used in fuel pumps to determine whether biodiesel blends pose any threat to their integrity. “One aspect that we have focused on strongly in the laboratory is elastomer compatibility,” he said. “We want to determine whether B20 is compatible with the elastomer materials commonly used in fuel pumps.” Butcher and others particularly focused on the pump shaft seal to see if biodiesel blends would degrade the elastomers. They exposed the elastomers extensively to the biodiesel blends and tested the materials for swelling, tensile strength, hardness and other engineering standards. Testers also ran fuel pumps extensively using a variety of blends up to B100, looking for even the smallest signs of leakage or damage.
Test results clearly showed no impact on the elastomer seal and gasket materials, he said. “We found the leakage rates overall on average were lower with the bioblends up to B20 than they were with No. 2 oil,” he said. Researchers also tested the effects of biodiesel blends on yellow metals to determine if the fuels could damage copper fuel lines, brass nozzles and other components. “We didn’t see anything that gave us cause for concern,” he said.
Butcher said that after all the testing, he has no reservations about B20 heating oil. “I don’t see any technical issues. I don’t see them at B20 or even at high blend levels,” he added.
B20 heating oil also looks sound to Raymond Hart, President of Hart Petroleum, an Oakdale, N.Y.-based supplier who has been selling biodiesel blends since 2006. Hart got aggressive with his blends levels as soon as he started marketing the new fuel, because New York State was offering an income tax incentive to promote blends all the way to B20.
Marketers may need to use a cold flow improver, and they should be sure that they are buying fuel that contains biodiesel that meets the ASTM D6751 biodiesel specification, according to Hart. “I think the industry has come a long way,” he said. “As long as buy from a reputable supplier and buy from a terminal that has been around for a while, that eliminates any issues.