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Soybeans turn out too ‘goopy’ for ferries

As quietly as it started, a year-long test run of biodiesel fuel on the Southworth-Vashon-Fauntleroy ferry route wrapped up last month, but the results were far from rosy.

In fact, they were decidedly “goopy.”

That was the unofficial term used by Washington State Ferries Executive Director Mike Anderson recently to describe the thick buildup that began to clog the engine filters nearly immediately after the mix of vegetable oils and low-sulfur diesel was introduced into the boats in May of last year.

“The filters were so clogged, we had to change them every 24 hours, which was much more frequent than usual,” said Anderson, who estimated that 20 times the normal amount of “goop” was collecting in the engines.

Initially launched as a 12-month pilot test for all three vessels serving the triangle route, the biodiesel trial was suspended after only five months last December. It was revived temporarily in March on just one boat, the M/V Tillikum, but the same problems occurred and now the effort is on-hold indefinitely as officials investigate why the more environmentally-friendly fuel is not compatible with their engines.

“It may be that our vessels are really old; most were built in the 1950s,” said WSF environmental manager Tina Stotz, explaining that the different fuel — called B20 because it is created from a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent low sulfur petroleum diesel fuel — may have dislodged buildup already present in the engines, thus clogging the filters.

Another explanation could be that the temperature of Puget Sound waters is too cold for the fuel, Stotz said, explaining that having the fuel in tanks near the water may affect its performance.

Stotz said she is aware of biodiesel fuel being used successfully in buses and cars, but not so far in ferries.

Although the problem is still a mystery, WSF officials said their agency is determined to solve it, and is dedicated to using alternative fuels in its vessels.

“We’re not giving up,” Anderson said at the last South Sound Ferry Advisory Committee meeting earlier this month. “We’re committed to finding a solution and getting (the biodiesel) back in use.”

Stotz said WSF is now working with researcher Jon Van Gerpen, a University of Idaho professor and head of the school’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department.

To facilitate the research, Stotz said WSF received a one-year extension on the original grant from Seattle City Light’s Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program, which made the trial possible by offsetting the higher cost of the alternative fuel.

“Biodiesel is quite a bit more expensive,” said Anderson, explaining that since Seattle City Light’s coverage area is limited to King County, the trial could only be funded for the triangle route, which serves both Vashon Island and Fauntlery(West Seattle).

Although all serious attempts to use biodiesel on the boats ended last spring, Stotz said the large signs on both the M/V Issaquah and the M/V Tillikum proclaiming “This ferry powered by soybeans; biodiesel fuel in use” were still displayed in the hopes the program would be re-started.

However, Stotz said this week officials planned to remove the decals and place posters on the boats explaining the results of the trial.

“We didn’t want to have (the signs) up there for our customers to read when we’re having the problems using the fuel,” she said, adding that a lot of WSF customers, particularly Vashon residents, are keenly interested in supporting the use of sustainable energy sources.

According to WSF, biodiesel is a renewable fuel made from both virgin and recycled vegetable oils, animal fats or discarded restaurant grease, that also helps to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to the biodiesel trials, Anderson said WSF is also introducing both low sulfur and ultra-low sulfur diesel to its vessels as part of agency-wide “Clean Fuel Initiatives” announced lat May.

Those initiatives include converting the entire WSF fleet to low sulfur diesel within the past year, which the agency claimed would “eliminate 90 percent (412 tons) of the sulfur dioxide emissions and at least 30 percent (75 tons) of the particulate emissions from our fleet.”

Also part of the initiatives, according to the WSF, will be a continuing effort to conserve diesel fuel, and a year-long test run of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel on the M/V Elwha, one of the vessels serving the San Juan Islands.

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