Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory is a tremendous success story

The Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory began as an offshoot of the Biofuels Technology and Biotechnology programs created at Iowa Central Community College in the fall of 2006. The cornerstone feature of these programs was and continues to be the student teaching laboratory and its many state-of-the-art instruments available for hands-on use by our students.

We were approached in the fall of 2006 to assist in conducting the Two Million Mile Haul B20 biodiesel field trial with Decker Truck Line of Fort Dodge employing both our instruments and students in the study. These efforts attracted the interest of several parties including state and local officials, local biofuel producers, the Iowa Soybean Association, the Iowa Biodiesel Board, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, and the National Biodiesel Board. This group of interested parties collectively formed the idea of creating an independent fuel testing laboratory on the campus of Iowa Central. We secured initial funding through a state appropriation that provided funds for the laboratory casework and an initial round of instrument purchases. With the leadership and direction of U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the U. S. Department of Energy provided funding that allowed for additional instrument purchases and to cover salaries and other expenses during the startup period. In addition, state Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, and state Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, also helped secure $250,000 in state funding to help launch the laboratory.

In the summer of 2007, Iowa Central successfully passed an $18 million referendum. With these funds, the college constructed the Biosciences and Health Sciences Building, a LEED Gold Certified building that houses several degree programs and the Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory. Groundwork and construction on the new Biosciences building and adjacent geothermal pond began in the spring of 2008, and the laboratory occupied its new space by the beginning of the fall 2009 semester. Shortly thereafter, the laboratory began the process of becoming a BQ-9000 accredited laboratory through the National Biodiesel Accreditation Program. We not only became a BQ-9000 accredited facility, but we became the first laboratory in the nation to do so. We continued on with the accreditation process and in the spring of 2011 we became accredited with the ISO 9001:2008 standard for quality management systems. These quality programs assure our clients that they are receiving the highest quality products and services from our laboratory.

The primary role of the laboratory is to function as a nonprofit entity providing full-service support and testing for the motor fuels industry in general, and the renewable fuels industry in particular. We follow the American Society for Testing and Materials standards for fuel quality. These standards include the standard for biodiesel (ASTM D6751), biodiesel blends (ASTM D7467), diesel (ASTM D975), home heating oil (ASTM D396), denatured fuel ethanol (ASTM D4806), E85 ethanol blends (ASTM D5798), and reformulated gasoline (ASTM D4814). In addition, we provide support for atypical requests including analysis of biodiesel feedstock materials, characterization of adulterated fuels, or the identification of contaminants responsible for fuel filter plugging. We also provide laboratory support for biofuels research.

Broad client base

Our client base is both domestic and international, with over 36 states represented in our client list. We serve all clients big and small, including producers, marketers, retail and wholesale distributors, and local and state government entities. In fact, it is not uncommon to help a local farmer or farm co-op with a fuel problem. We excel at working with all our clients, but our services are especially appreciated by the smaller producers. Many of these clients do not have robust in-house testing capabilities and must rely on outside laboratories for assistance. With many of the larger, commercial laboratories this can be an expensive proposition, with the possibility of having to wait days or weeks for their results. This can set the stage for improper or inadequate testing which may negatively impact fuel quality, an issue that is of significant concern for all. Our goal is to provide fast, low-cost fuel testing for all of our clients in addition to providing personal customer service to help our clients understand any fuel issues they may have.

One of our major clients is the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Bureau of Weights and Measures. Our facility is the state-designated laboratory to conduct testing for the state’s Fuel Quality Assurance Program that was implemented in 2007. As part of this program, we provide full analysis on over 200 samples routinely pulled from renewable fuel production plants and pipeline terminals per year. In addition, we provide laboratory support whenever questions of fuel quality are brought to the attention of the Bureau. Previously, the state would need to send samples to an out-of-state facility at much higher cost and, in many cases, a much longer wait time for results.

As part of our partnership with IDALS, we are wrapping up a B20 biodiesel demonstration project using three Ford Power Stroke B20-compatible diesel pickups. We have been monitoring the performance of these pickups running on diesel (control vehicle) or a 20 percent biodiesel blend (test vehicle). We have two test vehicles, one running a soy-based biodiesel blend and the other running a tallow-based biodiesel blend. We have been tracking several parameters including fuel economy, engine performance, and maintenance schedules. The Diesel Technology program has been performing general maintenance on these trucks as an instruction tool for students. In addition, the Diesel Technology students have been studying engine performance using the chassis dynamometer we installed for the Diesel Technology program. We anticipate the students will be able to do a light tear-down of the engines to further document the effects of the B20 blends on engine wear and performance.

Unique partnership

The Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory and Iowa Central Community College represent a unique partnership not found anywhere else in the nation. Today the laboratory has four full-time staff and a part-time secretary, and we anticipate hiring an additional technician in the very near future. It is noteworthy that our two full-time technicians are graduates of the Iowa Central Biotechnology and Biofuels Technology programs. The biofuels industry is strong and our business has been rapidly expanding. Our positive revenue growth has allowed us to become a fully self-sustaining entity within the College. We have been growing so fast in fact that we have nearly outgrown our current space, and may look to expand in the future. In addition to our fuel testing services, we provide positive educational experiences for student groups on campus including giving tours of the facility and providing laboratory support to our Biotechnology program. We provide tours to outside groups; you may have even seen us present to your local civic group.

Dr. Donald A. Heck is director of Iowa Central Fuel Testing Laboratory. Julaine Bidleman is manager of the laboratory.