With a new year, a new research center, plus continued exploration of the potential of biofuel
By Stephen Bennett
On the agenda of the National Oilheat Research Alliance in 2016 is the opening of a new research and training center and continued development of biofuel. A consumer education campaign, for which approximately $1 million has been budgeted, and a conference are also on the 2016 agenda, said John Huber, president of NORA.
The “liquid fuels research center,” in Plainview, N.Y. (on Long Island) is scheduled to open in January. It is being established by NORA in conjunction with the New York Oil Heating Association and Oil Heat Comfort Corp., a technical training subsidiary of the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island.
The center will feature full-service educational facilities, including classrooms, equipment for students and trainees to work on, and a conference room, Huber said.
A research lab will be part of the center, and Dr. Thomas Butcher of nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory will be primarily responsible for running it, Huber said. Butcher started working part-time for the Alliance in November, Huber said.
“The fact that we’ll be able to do a lot of our research in-house,” and “having the lab fully integrated with the education programs there will help keep the research focused on real-world issues,” Huber said. “I think it’s going to be really good for the industry.”
A certificate of occupancy was expected to be issued in late December or by January 1, Huber said.
There is a Holiday Inn next to the location that is used frequently for training events, Huber noted. “We’re hoping that the companies that do training privately will also take advantage of the opportunity to use the facility,” he said. Unlike a school that is fully occupied from early morning into the afternoon each day, the research and training facility is conceived as a place that can serve many part-time users on an as-needed basis. Classes for technicians, for outreach to Realtors and home inspector training, can be conducted in the center, in addition to ongoing work in the lab, Huber said.
There will be oil-fired equipment in a classroom setting to accommodate manufacturers and trainers, Huber said. “Hopefully the industry will see that as an opportunity,” he said. As an equipped, ready-to-use facility, the center could save trainers the trouble of transporting equipment, Huber noted.
Having equipment at the center is also useful when briefing real estate agents, Huber said. “Showing them what our systems look like, our burners – that makes it all the more impactful” in contrast to a PowerPoint presentation, he said.
The space, approximately 3,500-square-feet in an office-industrial park, has been renovated according to the associations’ specifications. The groups took a five-year lease with an option to renew for five years, and another option for five years after that. Huber said the rent was approximately $50,000 per year, shared among the three sponsoring associations. But the main initial outlay will be outfitting the facility, Huber said. “We’ve got to buy $100,000 to $150,000 of test equipment, and get it all installed,” he said.
The space is expected to be “pretty Spartan” in its first weeks, until it becomes fully operational, which is expected to be around Feb. 1, Huber said.
Of Brookhaven National Laboratory, Huber said, “We’re going to try to maintain that relationship because Brookhaven has done good work by us for many years.” The new research center will take a somewhat different approach from that of Brookhaven, focusing on matters of immediate import to the industry, including “fuel quality issues” and “little things that don’t work right for some reason,” Huber said.
“I’d rather have us working on a small scale, with good science, than try to do a major inquiry via a national lab” where the cost of contracting, overhead, and equipment must be taken into account, Huber observed. “This will allow us to do more and [make] quicker responses to the industry’s needs for research,” Huber said.
However, “because this is new for us, we want to put the toe in and then put the leg in and gradually figure out how much we should do here, and how much we should farm out, before we jump the whole way into it,” Huber said. For example, he said, “We have budgeted [for] a lab technician,” but whether one will be hired remains to be seen.
“Biodiesel and Bioheat research obviously is going to be a big part of our agenda,” Huber said, turning to other goals in 2016. A Bioheat technical steering committee met in November with manufacturers, biodiesel producers and technical experts to discuss “how to continue to grow the biodiesel share of our fuel,” Huber said.
“We’re trying to be responsive to manufacturers’ concerns about equipment in the field, and also trying to develop the information that will allow manufacturers to design and build next-generation equipment that can accommodate the biodiesel,” Huber said.
Under consideration are efforts to survey those with experience with the higher-level biodiesel blends. “There are a lot of people in the industry who are blending at levels above five percent,” Huber said. A survey could help in “getting a sense how that material behaves in the field in the long term,” Huber said. “That’s important to know, because we obviously, as an industry, store product for extended periods of time.”
If higher-blend fuels coming out of production facilities have changed three months later because they’ve been in storage, Huber said, “would that somehow impact the operability of equipment? We want to make sure that if it does, it’s known. On average our fuel is three months, four months old by the time it’s blended” – and can be slightly older, maybe having been stored through a summer, Huber noted. “The material itself is going to have some aging before it’s consumed,” he said.
Surveys of homeowners’ tanks that have held biodiesel could help determine the state of the fuel that would typically be burned.
The goal would be to convey the typical condition of that fuel to burner manufacturers so they can build equipment that would burn it efficiently, Huber said.
There have been unverified reports that biodiesel with higher percentages of biofuel burns differently, Huber added. “There’ve been discussions about whether the flame looks a little bit different than our typical heating oil flame,” Huber said. If so, “Will that somehow affect the cad cell?” The cadmium sulfide cell, part of the control system, senses the presence of the oil burner flame. The cad cell reacts to light from the flame. If it doesn’t detect light, it shuts down the equipment. The question is, if the flame from fuel with more bio in it looks different, will the cad cell perform differently? Huber said, “It’s worth making sure that it doesn’t, and if it does, that the people in manufacturing know it” so they can “design against it.”
A survey could also collect important data on higher-bio blends – information that could be provided to Underwriters Laboratories, Huber said. “As we move to the higher levels UL is going to have to certify equipment,” Huber said. For that, UL will develop a test fuel for use in the equipment it certifies, Huber said.
“Our work will be to specify what that [test] fuel is so that the industry and UL knows what fuel needs to work and the equipment manufacturers know what fuel to test with their new products in order to win UL approval,” Huber said.
The test fuel, he said, “is supposed to be representative of what’s really used.” Huber added that since UL’s focus is safety, “They’re going to make sure that the fuel is the worst possible fuel that’s reasonable to expect in a home. It may have a little water in it, it may have a little salt water in it. It may have aged a little longer.”
Huber said he expected that UL would scrutinize “B5 to B20.”
For NORA’s part, conducting a survey to determine the quality of higher blends – B20 to B100 – wouldn’t be practical because they aren’t much in use, Huber noted.
“But I think we’ll do some surveys of B20 users, see what that fuel looks like, and try to extrapolate it to the higher blends,” he said.
The method to test the higher blends could be “see what the B20 looks like after three months in storage, and put in some water or salt water” – to simulate the higher blends, Huber suggested.
“We need the worst-case scenario because from an industry perspective, as we go to higher levels of biodiesel it’s critical that we don’t have any customer dissatisfaction,” he said.
The goal is “when we move to higher levels [that] it will be a successful movement and not one that backfires on us,” he said.
Surveying biofuel users and selecting a test fuel “will be a 2016 project” for NORA, Huber said. But then UL has to reach a consensus on the test fuel, he noted. “It’s tough to speculate how long they’ll take,” Huber said.
A research conference is likely to be arranged and held in late spring or early fall of 2016, Huber said. “We have allocated money to do a research conference,” he said. “It’s important to the industry to have its technical progress evaluated,” documented and archived for later reference, he said. Subjects for presentation and discussion are yet to be worked out, as well as a location for such a conference.
The NORA board authorized an expenditure of approximately $1 million, most of it “leftover funds from pre-2010” for an outreach campaign using the Web, Huber said.
“We have been working on a plan for all our NORA states to provide customers information about our product,” Huber said. Ensuring that search tools find the information is one focus, and pop-up ads will be an element of the campaign too. That effort will be integrated with the oilheatamerica website.
The outreach campaign, launching in January, is designed “to make sure our customers understand that the industry has made some significant advancements in the last five years,” Huber said. “The biofuels, renewable fuels, are obviously a much more important part of our product today, and they’ll be growing in importance as we go forward.”
Additionally, “the economics of our product are much better than they used to be,” Huber said. “The price has dropped.” Trumpeting that good news will be part of the consumer education effort, a digital media campaign using Facebook, home improvement, green living sites and other online venues.