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Standards: Assurance of Quality or a Path toward Exclusion?

Submitted by on November 15, 2012 – 7:29 pmNo Comment

by Joanne Ivancic (Advanced Biofuels USA)  You know you have benefited from a conference when you come away from three days of presentations, panel discussions and a solid dose of audience participation with new understandings and clarifications; and with a hearty amount of new questions.

The 4th International Conference on Biofuels Standards: Current Issues, Future Trends held this week at the headquarters of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, MD, brought together high level chemists, chemical engineers and other scientists from around the world with national and international policy experts to wrestle with the issues underlying developing and complying with renewable transportation fuel standards for aviation and ground uses; and with related sustainability standards.

These are the people behind making sure that no matter where you fill up the tanks of your planes, trains and automobiles, you can be assured that the fuel will perform as it is supposed to.  Presentations overflowed with technical charts, graphs and lists as they grappled with how to continue this work, expand it to new fuels and new fuel components, and to improve assurances of performance, safety and durability into the farthest reaches of human habitation on this planet.

And, thus comes to the fore the question in the title. Can we; and if we can, should we, demand the same, consistent requirements for performance, safety, durability and sustainability (economic, environmental and social) of fuels throughout the world, be they renewable or fossil-based?  Or, would this exclude beneficial developments that will not occur if standards are out of reach in some sectors?  Can we/should we avoid setting standards that will impose outside values on others’ cultures?  If we aspire to base standards on solid science, what is the role of beliefs and values not based on science?

The conference serves as a forum for discussion of measurements and standards needed to facilitate the transition of sustainable biofuels to global commodities. During three days of exploring in great detail existing technical, policy,and regulatory elements related to measurement, discussion occasionally burrowed beneath the technical chemical and mathematical metrology to heart, soul and deeply held feelings and heatedly expressed emotions.

Certainly, this was the place to talk in detail about biofuels produced from a wide variety of feedstocks using a myriad of processes for a range of uses on land, sea and in the air, with special emphasis at this conference on aviation biofuels.

And the question about imposing consistent standards around the world for biofuels has a clear answer when the use is for aviation.

Since about 2005 when Boeing invited world experts to discuss transitioning to renewable jetfuels, stakeholders from airframe and engine designers and manufacturers  to airport operators, governments, researchers, biofuels and feedstock producers and others have joined together in a robust, collaborative effort to make sure that the transition has quality, safety, performance and durability.

As was repeated over and over, “You can’t just pull over and park if you have a problem in the sky.”  It was noted that maybe in these initial years they are going overboard in their scrutiny “from seed to turbine” with repetitive tests and extra redundancies, but I doubt that anyone who flies would prefer to have it any other way–yet.

Thus, in the context of air travel, consistent global standards; or at least compatible global standards, and agreed-upon measurements and techniques of measuring are crucial both for performance and fitness for purpose.

And, this isn’t such a big change.  Today, commercial and military aircraft can only be filled up with specified fossil-based fuels that meet consistent or compatible petroleum standards.  If some parts of the world are excluded, that’s the way it is.

For some reason, the general transition to biofuels has awakened new thoughts, new concerns, new fears, new awareness.  People who had no beef with conversion of agricultural land to industrial, housing and commercial developments and the paved roads and parking lots that go with them are up in arms about fields kept in agriculture and used for food and fuel. And, some are upset that forests that used to be managed and harvested for pulp/paper industry might transition to use for bioenergy for heat, power and transport.  Consciousness has been raised about the impact demands of modern society have on our natural resources.

They are taught fear from analysis of economic models that assume that every inch of farmable land in the world is being farmed and uses that are not exclusively for food harmfully upset what is assumed to be a perfect balance.  However, conversion of land to lower yielding crops, to sprawl, to recreational activities or even abandoned to conservation reserves apparently do not upset the balance.  And although demands are made for carbon life cycle analysis “seed to wheel” for biofuels, similar demands are not made for existing or expanding uses of crops, forest resources or mining operations used for cosmetics, foods or other consumer goods.

Ah, if only ground transportation systems could follow the aviation sector’s lead.  But the ground transportation sector around the world is not as tight a society as that in the aviation world.

Only recently have engine designers/manufacturers, fuel aggregation, distribution and delivery interests, retail fuel operators, conversion technology researchers, biofuels and feedstock producers, governments, consultants and civic organizations come together to talk about how to transition to sustainable, renewable ground transportation systems.

Some of that technical discussion took place at this Gaithersburg gathering, too.

Slowly, slowly, we gain deeper understanding of the technical challenges and how to meet them; of the policy/social value questions and how to answer them; of the economic hurdles and how to address them; of the environmental impacts and how to evaluate them.

I was pleased to be among this group that not only acknowledged the difficulties and identified problems and potential troubles, but worked to put all their expertise, interest, skills and brain power into solving them.  That they will contribute as much as they can to assure that informed decisions are based on known science and common sense.

That common sense might help us to accept that strict standards might be inappropriate for some circumstances; that social values differ in different cultures; that recognizing incremental environmental improvements might be better than completely excluding some from the system thus avoiding reinforcing harmful practices.

And, throughout the sessions, it became apparent that all is done with deeply held convictions that sustainability is as important as safety for quality fuels that meet thoughtful specifications to assure performance and durability.

Although we might not agree on what sustainability means in every circumstance, or on the relative weight that must be given to achieve the appropriate balance of the economic, environmental and social elements of a sustainability analysis, we respect the concept and strive to give it life.

In a scientific community, there is also disagreement on the best feedstock, conversion technologies and end products.  That was evident in presentations as well as in discussions with participants; thus the need for those who develop and implement policies that attach values to the process of choosing among options.

Which brings us to the responsibility of everyone who has knowledge and interest in this area from economic, environmental and social perspectives.

As one participant noted, those engaged with one aspect of sustainability must learn to interact productively with those engaged with the others.  Positive progress toward shared goals, such as mitigating or adapting to climate change or assuring adequate affordable sustainable energy supplies for power and transportation globally, relies on broader education and understanding of all of these elements.

At Advanced Biofuels USA, we hope to contribute to progress toward this greater understanding.

Presentations and summaries of panel discussions will be available at the NIST website: http://www.nist.gov/mml/biofuels-standards.cfm 

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