Iowa Central Community College's biofuels testing lab has become a success in less than five years. With only four personnel employed, the fully accredited lab has more than 100 clients and is now self-sustaining.
According to Donald Heck, director, the program began as an offshoot of the college's biofuels technology program, with the Two Million Haul B20 biodiesel field trial for Decker Trucking of Fort Dodge.
"It's been about four or five years ago now, when we started work on the Decker study, which was the over-the-road trucking study that we did using B20 biodiesel," Heck said. "Right about the beginning of that is when the idea for the fuel testing laboratory was born."
State and federal funds were pursued with the purpose of creating a fuel testing laboratory with two main priorities: One, to help the renewable fuels industry by providing lower-cost testing and a more rapid turnaround on test results than companies receive from the larger commercial laboratories; and, two, to support the Iowa State Department of Weights and Measures.
"We basically test the fuel samples that the state pulls from various producers and retailers," Heck said. "That's our main goal. To serve the renewable fuels industry with ethanol and biodiesel testing and to support the state department of weights and measures with their fuel quality monitoring."
The fuel lab went into business officially in June 2010, though it was doing some testing work prior.
"As far as actually putting together a marketing campaign and advertising and soliciting new clients and whatnot, we did that about June 2010," Heck said. "And that coincided with our receiving the BQ-9000 accreditation."
The program, through the National Biodiesel Accreditation Commission, is patterned after the ISO-9000, Heck said.
"It's a quality management program," he said. "We went ahead and prepared for that, registered for that, and became accredited in June 2010. And, of course, we're the first laboratory in the nation to receive that accreditation."
The fuel lab built upon that and received its ISO-9001 accreditation in May.
"That just basically means that we follow a regimented program regarding quality control, record-keeping documentation, verifying the instruments are performing consistently," Heck said. "We do what we call reference checks on the instruments. We want to make sure the instrument is giving us the actual number for that particular test. We want to make sure it's accurate. We want to make sure it's precise. And that's basically what these programs do. It just means you have a formal quality control program in place for your operation."
This year, the lab also became self-sustaining, Heck said.
"We were hoping to reach that point starting 2013, but we're several months ahead of that," he said. "We needed a little external funding to get off the ground, to get us established, and that, of course, was provided to us by the state and through the department of energy. But our revenue stream now is such that we are basically about breaking even. We are able to sustain ourselves. We require no specific funds from the college. All of our salaries, our supplies and equipment needs, are supplied wholly by the lab."
Heck described the lab's success as "kind of surreal."
"I never intended to come to Iowa Central to start a business," he said. "But with help from the college and some great, talented people, and some external funding, it just all sort of happened that way in a very short amount of time. We developed a business, and a sustainable business."
Heck is both pleased with and proud of the college's distinct accomplishment.
"It's very unique for a community college to be able to create something like this and make it go," he said. "My goals are just to sustain it and grow the business. Bring new clients, expand our capabilities, offer additional testing. Just keep running with it, I guess."