A commitment to development
The fuel industry in itself is old and well established, but the biofuel industry within it is not – it is, in fact, fairly new. That means that companies like Independent Petroleum Laboratory (IPL), which tests biofuels for New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, have to face a bit of a learning curve. But, armed with a commitment to development, its employees and its mission, IPL is ready to face that curve head on
IPL was founded in July, 1999, as a joint venture company between the New Zealand Refining Company and BP Oil in New Zealand. Both companies had their own laboratories, which they merged together to form IPL. The primary objective was a straight forward one: provide fuel testing services to New Zealand. “At that point in time, the other major oil companies in New Zealand had their own laboratory facilities,” says Russell Baddeley, IPL General Manager. “But within two, three years they all closed and brought their work to IPL. So we became the New Zealand fuel testing laboratory.”
Six years later, “biofuel started to appear on the horizon” says Baddeley. “And we made a decision then that we wanted to become New Zealand’s biofuel testing facility. We commenced research and development around the necessary methodologies to provide a full testing suite to that industry.” Another six years have passed since then, and if IPL isn’t there already, it is well on its way.
So what now? “One of the things we’ve been looking at in the last few years is developing the range of analysis we offer,” says Tony Hockings, IPL’s Strategic Development Manager. “The industry in New Zealand started off based on tallow, which is reasonably unique – I think there’s some tallow in the UK and a small amount in America, but not a lot.” Now, Hockings says, the industry is moving away from tallow and looking to canola and alternative fuels. At IPL, they’ve also started testing other materials which, Hockings says are generated as part of the biofuel production, like glycerol. “We’ve seen the focus on biofuels come and go a bit in New Zealand over the last few years,” he says. “But we’re hoping the trend now is for biofuels to receive more propulsion by the government. We’ll have to wait see where that goes.”
Biofuels are not other fuels
One challenge IPL is facing is finding that many traditional testing methods that work with other fuels simply don’t when biofuels are involved. “So it’s very important to get methods that are actually applicable,” Hockings says. “Some methods will work with tallow-based biofuel and some won’t. Some methods will work with canola-based fuels and some won’t.” To address this, IPL is working with the New Zealand government to develop the specifications and regulations the industry needs. “We’ve worked with our Ministry of Economic Development to try to ensure we’ve got the right regulatory methods there.”
Another way they’ve addressed the problem is by acquiring European methods, and modifying them for their own purposes. As Hockings explains, they’ve invested a lot of effort and research into biofuel. It is still a whole new field, after all.
IPL is also committed to internal investment. “Certainly, ‘people development’ is a big part of our business plan,” Baddeley says. “As the market matures and technology matures, we’re going to focus on up-skilling our staff – and not just in laboratory techniques, but in understanding of the industry.” He also says that the company’s flexible working hours – which benefit both their employees and their customers – help to engender worker loyalty. Adds Hockings: “We have a very comprehensive internal and external training plan. Training is one of our key goals.”
IPL has been an active member of BANZ, the Bioenergy Association of New Zealand. “We use them for ideas, as a sounding board,” says Hockings. “This being a new industry, it’s important to try to keep your fingers on what’s going on, so you can see where the trends are headed.”
It is government commitment that drives biofuel demand, says Baddeley, not necessarily the economy. Hockings even says that if oil prices continue to rise, biofuel might benefit. “If it costs less to produce biofuels than to produce and refine petroleum products, then obviously biofuels will have a good economic future as well as being good for the environment.”
In the future, Baddeley sees the business fully developing a range of biofuel testing services to meet the requirements of the industry. “So that’ll mean growing existing services and bringing in new technologies,” he says. “It’s a developing industry and needs are going to change over the next five years. And that’s our intent – to meet those needs.”
Over the years, IPL has borne witness to numerous small producers of biofuels falling and being reduced to just a few main ones. With those main companies, IPL has developed close working relationships. As opposed to just being a supplier of testing, they have been able to work alongside those producers as well as the government in improving the specifications and testing procedures the industry utilises.
Again, the industry is relatively new and doesn’t have every piece pegged down yet. “It’s been a learning curve for us,” Baddeley reiterates. “The fuel industry itself is very mature, fairly defined and straightforward, but some of the biofuels behave totally differently. So it’s been a bit of a learning curve.”