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 February 2006 Spotlight

You’re the Top,
You’re Test Method D 86

When popular songwriter Cole Porter composed “You’re The Top” in 1934, he didn’t think to include any technical standards in his list of things that were “the top.” However, if he had mentioned a standard, he could have cited ASTM International Standard D 86, now called Test Method for Distillation of Petroleum Products at Atmospheric Pressure, which was already a popular 13-year-old document in 1934.

Now, thanks to tracking done through ASTM’s memorandum of understanding program, it’s official: Test Method D 86 really is the top, the ASTM standard referenced in more countries (at least 32) than any other. Originally known as D 86-21T, Tentative Method of Test for Distillation of Gasoline, Naphtha, Kerosene, and Similar Petroleum Products, D 86 is used to determine the distillation characteristics of most petroleum products, as well as many petroleum-based solvents.

According to Rey Montemayor, longtime member of ASTM Committee D02 on Petroleum Products and Lubricants and former ASTM board member, D 86 has a variety of users. Producers of petroleum products and hydrocarbon solvents use D 86 to ensure that products they produce conform to regulated or industry specifications. Testing laboratories use the standard to check compliance to local and state specifications, and petroleum testing labs use it to determine parameters of petroleum products required to be tested. Finally, buyers of petroleum solvents used for various applications such as paint and coatings use D 86 to check that the solvents conform to specified parameters.

The origins of Test Method D 86 can be traced back to the early days of the automobile in the first decades of the 20th century. At that time, the gas used to spark the ignition was a mixture of light naphtha batch distilled from crude oil and liquid condensate from natural gas production. Gradually, gasoline evolved to become a carefully formulated mixture of hydrocarbons and additives, which would be blended seasonally to meet local ambient conditions.

As the process of developing gas for cars became more complex, specifications were introduced that contained volatility parameters which included distillation properties detailed in D 86. Volatility parameters are important because they are used to control the boiling range of gasoline to assure that the automobile operates properly during start-up, warm-up and hot operation.

Eventually, the same type of distillation procedures were needed to control the boiling range of hydrocarbon materials in other petroleum products, such as aviation gasoline/kerosene, diesel or middle distillate fuels, home heating fuels and hydrocarbon solvents. In each case, the test method specified for such procedures has been D 86 or a regional test method equivalent. “Because of this, D 86 has become one of the most widespread ASTM test methods,” says Montemayor. “In the petroleum industry, all historical data regarding distillation parameters of different petroleum products has been obtained using D 86.”

While Test Method D 86 has changed through the years to reflect advancing technology, Montemayor says that the original test method has stood the test of time, and the manual method currently included in the standard is very similar to the procedure described in D 86-21T. The classic manual distillation method was supplemented in the 1960s with an automated method. Montemayor says that automated D 86 procedures have gained popularity throughout the world in the last 20 years. “Automated D 86 distillation equipment does all the procedural details specified in the manual test method, thus freeing up the laboratory operator’s valuable time to do other tests,” says Montemayor.

Montemayor says he can foresee a time when Test Method D 86 isn’t quite as popular as it is now. “Just like any other test method, newer technology brings about improvement in the test methodology and D 86 is no exception,” he says. New distillation test methods are currently being developed using smaller sample size and faster testing times and Subcommittee D02.08 is now undertaking interlaboratory studies in North America and Europe to develop precision statements for these newer methods.

Newer distillation methods may ultimately steal some of D 86’s thunder but Montemayor doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “It will take time, considering the cost of newer distillation technology test equipment, and the extensive amount of historical D 86 data of various petroleum products,”says Montemayor. “D 86 will still be around for a long time!” //

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