Biodiesel no image

Published on January 22nd, 2009 | by Robert Moffitt

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Some Cold Truth About Biodiesel In Minnesota — It’s Not the Biodiesel That’s Bad.

Editor’s note: Robert Moffitt is one of the newest additions to the Gas 2.0 writing team. Welcome aboard Robert!

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Last week, temperatures in my home state of Minnesota stayed below zero for nearly four consecutive days. Extreme cold is not particularly unusual in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but it’s not much fun to commute to work or school with air temperatures at -20ºF. As I bundled up and drove to work in the middle of the cold snap, I heard a radio news story that one large suburban school system had closed, saying their school buses couldn’t run “because the biodiesel had turned to gel.”

When I checked my computer at work, I found that the story was already being covered heavily by local news outlets and had been picked up by the Associated Press. Soon, the Internet was humming with comments, blog posts, tweets and retweets about the story, many of them mocking the use of biodiesel, Minnesota’s mandated use of the fuel, or even global warming.

Some people, including myself, had questions about the story. Since Minnesota state law requires that virtually all diesel sold here contain two percent biodiesel (B2), and the cold wave covered the entire state (it was -40ºF in International Falls, MN that morning!), wouldn’t all the diesel-fueled vehicles be affected, and not just a small percentage of the buses in one school district? I saw many trucks and school buses on the road that morning, all running on the same B2 mix the Bloomington school buses use. I posted my doubts on a local blog and sent copies to local reporters. Soon, others began to have doubts, too.

Minnesota’s biodiesel mandate, the first of its kind in the nation, has not always run smoothly. There were problems at the start, which lead to some sweeping quality assurance efforts that rippled through the entire biodiesel industry in the United States. As a result, the quality of the biofuel blended with petroleum diesel here has never been better. As the state is on track to increase its required biodiesel blend from two percent to five percent (B5) this year, finding fast answers to this latest mystery was vital, before negative publicity could spur some state lawmakers to call for a delay — or even overturning the law.

In reaction, the National Biodiesel Board issued a statement to its members on the issue. It’s not available for links, but here’s an excerpt:

“Nothing is more important than getting kids to school safely, which is exactly why we worked proactively to get to the bottom of the district’s concerns,” said Ed Hegland, National Biodiesel Board Chairman. “A B2 blend, when properly handled, should perform just like diesel. These extremely cold temperatures provide operational challenges to diesel vehicles regardless of whether they use biodiesel blends or diesel fuel.”

The report issued Friday by Meg Corp. said, “We found that whatever was plugging the filters was not biodiesel, but a substance found in petroleum.”

Disappointingly many reporters did not do due diligence to investigate the errant claim that biodiesel caused the buses that serve the Bloomington School District to malfunction. Initial stories inaccurately assumed and reported that biodiesel was a causing factor, when the facts strongly dispute this claim.

Will Rogers once said, “I only know what I read in the newspapers.” Unfortunately, the newspapers — and other media — sometimes get it wrong, or don’t fact-check claims made by others.

Image Credit: alextakesphotos‘s Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons License.




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About the Author

I'm Just Plain Bob here at Gas 2.0. At work, I am the communications director of the Clean Fuel & Vehicle Technologies program of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest. I work in Saint Paul, Minn.



  • The Answer is

    Actually the claims of turning to gel are probably true. But then regular diesel also turns to gel in the range of -20 to -40F unless it has special additives.

    So in fact the issue was the lack of heaters on fuel tanks and engines overnight or a heated bus barn – as in common in the north.

    And perhaps the bio-diesel merely lacked the correct additives for the range of temperatures before where heaters would be turned on. Easily solved…unless the additives are not GREEN…and I think that may be the case.

  • The Answer is

    Actually the claims of turning to gel are probably true. But then regular diesel also turns to gel in the range of -20 to -40F unless it has special additives.

    So in fact the issue was the lack of heaters on fuel tanks and engines overnight or a heated bus barn – as in common in the north.

    And perhaps the bio-diesel merely lacked the correct additives for the range of temperatures before where heaters would be turned on. Easily solved…unless the additives are not GREEN…and I think that may be the case.

  • http://www.ecolocalizer.com Shirley Siluk Gregory

    Hey Robert, thanks for the wise skepticism. I too saw the flurry of coverage regarding the bus troubles, but didn’t stop to ask your (in retrospect) very logical question, “Why not other vehicles as well?”

    Kudos for critical thinking!

  • http://www.ecolocalizer.com Shirley Siluk Gregory

    Hey Robert, thanks for the wise skepticism. I too saw the flurry of coverage regarding the bus troubles, but didn’t stop to ask your (in retrospect) very logical question, “Why not other vehicles as well?”

    Kudos for critical thinking!

  • Bob Moffitt

    The fact that the something was seriously wrong with some of the older, rear engine buses that fridgid morning is pretty clear. Unfortunately, the bus service spokesperson was too quick to blame the biodiesel in the fuel, and the school — and most of the media — followed suit.

    That said, the most important factor that day was the safety and well-being of the students — standing outside in -20 degrees can be dangerous. I’m certainly not going to second-guess the decision to close the school.

    I’m sure the kids didn’t mind!

  • Bob Moffitt

    The fact that the something was seriously wrong with some of the older, rear engine buses that fridgid morning is pretty clear. Unfortunately, the bus service spokesperson was too quick to blame the biodiesel in the fuel, and the school — and most of the media — followed suit.

    That said, the most important factor that day was the safety and well-being of the students — standing outside in -20 degrees can be dangerous. I’m certainly not going to second-guess the decision to close the school.

    I’m sure the kids didn’t mind!

  • Steve Stout

    Just another example of the media only wanting to air bad news. There are still people in the media perpetuating the food vs. fuel lies spread by the Grocery Manufacturers of America. When these guys were exposed, the media didn’t seem to care and kept printing the the lies. Here too, they are not making near the same amount of noise about it not being biodiesel’s fault.

  • Steve Stout

    Just another example of the media only wanting to air bad news. There are still people in the media perpetuating the food vs. fuel lies spread by the Grocery Manufacturers of America. When these guys were exposed, the media didn’t seem to care and kept printing the the lies. Here too, they are not making near the same amount of noise about it not being biodiesel’s fault.

  • http://www.burnveg.com John Galt

    I find their problems rather perplexing since I’ve been running a 5% VO fuel blend through the winter at -30 without any problems. I guess they still haven’t clued into cold settling out the biodiesel made from fats and hydrogenated oil that clogs filters. It’s not rocket science, however it does require attention to details.

    The solution to the problem is very simple. The biodiesel must be stored outside in the cold so that the high melt point temperature components settle out to the bottom of the barrel. Then and only then should the clear biodiesel from the TOP of the barrel be mixed with D1 grade winter diesel. Some above ground diesel fuel storage tanks draw fuel from the bottom of the tank, and this might contribute to the problem. This is my third winter working successfully with VO based fuel blends and the experience of myself and other cold climate researchers have solved these problems. Finding the cause of the problems is relatively simple compared with dealing with the political and personal agendas which so often thwart implementing simple solutions.

  • http://www.burnveg.com John Galt

    I find their problems rather perplexing since I’ve been running a 5% VO fuel blend through the winter at -30 without any problems. I guess they still haven’t clued into cold settling out the biodiesel made from fats and hydrogenated oil that clogs filters. It’s not rocket science, however it does require attention to details.

    The solution to the problem is very simple. The biodiesel must be stored outside in the cold so that the high melt point temperature components settle out to the bottom of the barrel. Then and only then should the clear biodiesel from the TOP of the barrel be mixed with D1 grade winter diesel. Some above ground diesel fuel storage tanks draw fuel from the bottom of the tank, and this might contribute to the problem. This is my third winter working successfully with VO based fuel blends and the experience of myself and other cold climate researchers have solved these problems. Finding the cause of the problems is relatively simple compared with dealing with the political and personal agendas which so often thwart implementing simple solutions.

  • http://www.americanfuels.info mus302

    Robert good to see you writing here. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    I don’t know what ASTM standard that Minnesota uses for B2 but most states use the same ASTM standard for biodiesel blends B5 and below as they do for #2 diesel. If that is the case in Minnesota as well then the gel point of B2 would have to meet or exceed the same gel point standard as #2 diesel.

  • http://www.americanfuels.info mus302

    Robert good to see you writing here. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    I don’t know what ASTM standard that Minnesota uses for B2 but most states use the same ASTM standard for biodiesel blends B5 and below as they do for #2 diesel. If that is the case in Minnesota as well then the gel point of B2 would have to meet or exceed the same gel point standard as #2 diesel.

  • http://www.peswiki.com Robert Pritchett

    Robert Moffit;

    Excellent report.

    We pointed out the problem being the troublesome bus manufacturer’s unheated filter being at fault (discussed in the independent report, if anybody bothered to read it) because of the congealed paraffin wax issue found in regular #2 diesel.

    The bus at fault is the Daimler Truck Thomas Built MVP-EF. (We also show the correct bus model and link on our page.)

    http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Biodiesel

  • http://www.peswiki.com Robert Pritchett

    Robert Moffit;

    Excellent report.

    We pointed out the problem being the troublesome bus manufacturer’s unheated filter being at fault (discussed in the independent report, if anybody bothered to read it) because of the congealed paraffin wax issue found in regular #2 diesel.

    The bus at fault is the Daimler Truck Thomas Built MVP-EF. (We also show the correct bus model and link on our page.)

    http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Biodiesel

  • Bob Moffitt

    Thanks, Richard and all the others for your kind words on my first Gas 2.0 posting.

  • Bob Moffitt

    Thanks, Richard and all the others for your kind words on my first Gas 2.0 posting.

  • Mark in Texas

    Mistrusting Mainstream Media reporting is the beginning of wisdom.

  • Mark in Texas

    Mistrusting Mainstream Media reporting is the beginning of wisdom.

  • Bob Moffitt

    A final word on the matter, from the opinion page of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis:

    http://tinyurl.com/b35rjj

  • Bob Moffitt

    A final word on the matter, from the opinion page of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis:

    http://tinyurl.com/b35rjj

  • Bob Moffitt
  • Bob Moffitt
  • curt

    I think this is an UNFAIR mandate. All diesel users in Minnesota have to pay 5 to 10 cents more per gallon because of it. Mabey it is time to start a petition to overturn this unfair requirement, and bring it before our state government?

  • curt

    I think this is an UNFAIR mandate. All diesel users in Minnesota have to pay 5 to 10 cents more per gallon because of it. Mabey it is time to start a petition to overturn this unfair requirement, and bring it before our state government?

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