After two years of training, processing and testing samples of biofuels from across Iowa, the Midwest and Canada, the Iowa Central Fuel Testing Lab is looking to be self-sufficient within the coming year.
That's according to Don Heck, the lab's director, who has shepherded this lab from its conceptual form into an operational reality over the past four years.
In September 2009, the lab fulfilled its first contracted project, a cold flow test of fuel samples for the National Biodiesel Board.
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
Kelly Kuester, an assistant lab technician at the ICCC facility, documents the process of a test that determines the temperature required for fuels to vaporize.
Over the next 24 months, Heck said, the lab has developed a growing list of clients, is generating revenue, has increased its staff to four, has become BQ 9000 certified, is close to becoming ISO certified and looks to be self-supporting by this time next year.
"It's been quite successful," Heck said. "We're generating good revenue. We are a business upstart."
Declining to reveal what is the revenue dollar target for self-sufficiency, Heck said the lab is "two-thirds of the way" in reaching that goal.
The staff was recently expanded from himself and full-time lab tech Josh Hayes, to including a lab manager, Julianne Bidleman, and a part time lab tech, Kelly Kuester.
Bidleman said part of her primary job description is in generating more business for the lab.
The facility, housed in the new Heath and Biosciences Building on the Iowa Central Community College campus, exists to perform professional testing for a variety of clients, but primarily for biodiesel manufacturers and marketers. This is not a training facility for students, said Heck.
When Heck devised the creation of the testing lab, he was overseeing the biofuels program at ICCC. It was hoped that those graduating from the program could become an employment pool for the lab. However, Heck said, the program has been discontinued.
"It's not that we couldn't get students interested in the program, but we couldn't get enough of them." He was pointed in his comments that many students who started the program dropped out because of the rigorous math and science demands in the curriculum.
Although initially set up to do testing for diesel and biodiesl, the lab is also expanding to do ethanol testing.
However, it can also do testing for fuel endusers, as it did recently for the Palo Alto County engineer.
Lab manager Bidleman said the engineer's office contacted the lab to sample its fuel, which was clogging up county-owned vehicles. The test served to trouble-shoot for the office to determine there was a problem with the fuel mixture.
On a work bench, waiting for processing was a bevy of stainless steel cannisters containing denatured ethanol. These include samples from Valero, in Fort Dodge, POET, in Emmetsburg, and from Golden Grain, in Canada.
Other clients have sent fuel for sampling and trouble-shooting from Cargill plants in Iowa Falls and Kansas City, Mo.; the Iowa Department of Agriculture's weights and measures bureau; and manufacturers of biofuels in Ohio, New York and Florida.
"We try to get tests back within 48 hours," Heck said., adding that he believes the quick turnaround time, plus the lab's reasonable rates are the secret to its early successes.
In Heck's words, "the lab's purpose is to answer one of two primary questions. 'Will the fuel get to the engine, and will the fuel hurt the engine?'"
The majority of fuel producers have their own testing labs, Heck said, "but these need to routinely have outside testing done to prove that their testing results are accurate.
Others labs, with broken equipment, will use the ICCC facility to keep their testing going until the machines are repaired, Heck said.
"The private industry's leverage of the lab," Heck said, "supplements the public funds."
The reasonable rates are attractive to manufacturers, he said, "because right now there is no (profit) margin in biodiesel."
With the lab's expansion into testing ethanol, Heck said he can foresee the lab also conducting glycerin testing in a variety of animal and vegetable oils, as well as feed stock testing.
Two years ago, Heck's faciliy assisted Fort Dodge-based Decker Truck Lines Inc. in a two-year study determining the advantage of using biodiesel versus straight diesel, looking at fuel efficiency, as well as reduced wear on engines.
Currently, the facility started, in July, doing a similar two-year study with IDALS on its Ford pickup trucks.
Heck said he looks forward to being able to do additional research projects.
Bidleman said that earlier this month the lab was contacted by a fuel producer in Korea to do specific testing for that company.
Heck indicated that the future of the lab is basically limited to the staff's imagination.
"We'll keep growing as long as we have the space," he said.
Heck said he is confident there will always be a market for renewable fuels.
"I think there are enough (people) in society who are behind renewable fuels. Some will use it whether it's more expensive or not. I think people are appreciating energy more and not taking it for granted as in the past."
In addition, Heck thinks that politically, it is increasingly more unpopular to buy crude oil from nations who hate the U.S.; and noted that fossil fuels are a limited quantity. They will eventually be used up.
Finally, he said, if one considers how Big Oil is now investing in renewable fuels, one must think that renewable fuels are here to stay.
"As long as Iowa has motor vehicles," Heck said, "we'll be testing fuels. And we're not just for Iowa. There are other states that don't have their own state-testing facilities, so we might pick up their work."
Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org