ULSD fuel economy seen good, supply spotty

Concerns about lost fuel economy due to the lower energy content of ultra-low-sulfur diesel are overblown if the comments of a BP fuels engineer at the Truckload Carriers Association Fuel Economy Summit in Chicago are accurate.

By late next year, 80 percent of the on-highway diesel sold at the retail level must meet the ULSD standard of 15 parts per million (ppm). Today’s standard is 500 ppm. Most observers expect ULSD to be more like 90 percent of all diesel sold because some refineries are converting to 100 percent ULSD even though they aren’t required to do so. ULSD will be needed in order for diesel particulate filters (DPFs) – required as part of the 2007 low-emissions engine solution – to work properly.

Richard George, technical service engineer-global fuels technology for BP, told the TCA attendees that the fuel economy impact of ULSD should be less than 1 percent – if there’s any impact at all. In addition, early concerns about the lubricity of ULSD are unfounded due to additives that are used in No. 1 and No. 2 diesel fuels.

Also, although the processes used to reduce sulfur in diesel are expensive, George predicted that market forces will keep prices in line. That’s because 90 percent of the diesel sold by this time next year will be ULSD, but most fuel buyers will want today’s diesel if they can get it.

But all the news isn’t good, George says. The risk of ULSD contamination will be high because fuel pipelines and tank trailers will be used to transport fuels that contain higher sulfur content. Even small amounts of fuel left behind in pipeline valves or at the bottom of tankers could take ULSD out of spec. For example, just 10 gallons of off-highway diesel or jet fuel in a 7,500-gallon tank trailers will increase sulfur content of an ULSD load by 5 ppm, George says. Contaminated ULSD still can be sold as low-sulfur on-highway diesel.

Refineries will adjust to this challenge by producing ULSD that’s considerably lower than 15 ppm at the refinery level. But that’s not a complete solution, George says. Regions at the far end of a pipeline simply may not be able to get ULSD by pipeline. For that reason, George predicts that at least initially the Northeast will experience supply problems. That won’t be a problem for truck owners operating today’s trucks, but it could cause problems for those operating trucks built after Jan. 1, 2007.

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More coverage of the TCA Fuel Economy Summit will appear on www.ccjmagazine.com on Thursday, Nov. 17.