Diesel Fuel Grades

Historically, the quality of automotive fuels in the United States was specified by ASTM standards. Diesel fuels are covered by the ASTM D975 standard.

Since 2004, the D975 standard has covered seven grades of diesel, Table 1. Heavier fuel oils Grade 5 and 6 (residual), which are used primarily for heating purposes, are described by ASTM D396.

Table 1
Diesel Fuel Grades
GradeDescriptionMax Sulfur
No. 1-D S15A special-purpose, light middle distillate fuel for use in diesel engine applications with frequent and widely varying speeds and loads or when abnormally low operating temperatures are encountered. Higher volatility than that provided by No. 2-D fuels.15 ppm
No. 1-D S500500 ppm
No. 1-D S50005000 ppm
No. 2-D S15A general-purpose, middle distillate fuel for use in diesel engines, especially in applications with relatively high loads and uniform speeds, or in diesel engines not requiring fuels having higher volatility or other properties specified in Grade No. 1-D fuels.15 ppm
No. 2-D S500500 ppm
No. 2-D S50005000 ppm
No. 4-DA heavy distillate fuel, or a blend of distillate and residual oil, for low- and medium-speed diesel engines in applications involving predominantly constant speed and load. 

The Sxxx designation was first adopted in the D975-04 edition of the standard to distinguish grades by sulfur content. The S5000 grades correspond to the “regular” sulfur grades, the previous No. 1-D and No. 2-D. S500 grades correspond to the previous “Low Sulfur” grades (D975-03). S15 grades are commonly referred to as “Ultra-Low Sulfur” grades or ULSD.

An ASTM standard (D2069) once existed for marine diesel fuels, but it has been withdrawn. It was technically equivalent to ISO 8217. While some marine diesel engines use No. 2 distillate, D2069 covered four kinds of marine distillate fuels: DMX, DMA, DMB, and DMC and residual fuels (see also ISO marine fuel specifications):

  • DMX is a special light distillate intended mainly for use in emergency engines.
  • DMA (also called marine gas oil, MGO) is a general purpose marine distillate that must be free from traces of residual fuel. DMX and DMA fuels are primarily used in Category 1 marine engines (< 5 liters per cylinder).
  • DMB (marine diesel oil, MDO) is allowed to have traces of residual fuel, which can be high in sulfur. This contamination with residual fuel usually occurs in the distribution process, when using the same supply means (e.g., pipelines, supply vessels) that are used for residual fuel. DMB is produced when fuels such as DMA are brought on board the vessel in this manner. DMB is typically used for Category 2 (5-30 liters per cylinder) and Category 3 (≥ 30 liters per cylinder) engines.
  • DMC is a grade that may contain residual fuel, and is often a residual fuel blend. It is similar to No. 4-D, and can be used in Category 2 and Category 3 marine diesel engines.
  • Residual (non-distillate) fuels are designated by the prefix RM (e.g., RMA, RMB, etc.). These fuels are also identified by their nominal viscosity (e.g., RMA10, RMG35, etc.).

With the growing importance of alternative diesel fuels, standards have also been developed for biodiesel fuels and their blends.

Sulfur Content

Since the 1990’s, fuel quality has been increasingly more regulated by the US EPA under the authority of the Clean Air Act. In the context of the increasingly more stringent diesel emission standards, the most important fuel property regulated by the EPA became the sulfur content. Historically, the sulfur content in diesel fuels for highway and nonroad vehicles was limited to 0.5% (wt.) by ASTM specifications. The milestones in US environmental regulations limiting sulfur levels in diesel fuels can be summarized as follows:

  • Highway Diesel Fuel
    • 500 ppm: Sulfur limit of 500 ppm = 0.05% (wt.) became effective in October 1993. This fuel, commonly referred to as low sulfur diesel fuel, was introduced to facilitate sulfate particulate emission reductions, which were necessary for meeting the 1994 emission standards for heavy-duty highway engines.
    • 15 ppm: Diesel fuel of maximum sulfur level of 15 ppm was available for highway use beginning in June 2006. This fuel, referred to as ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD), was legislated by the EPA to enable catalyst-based emission control devices, such as diesel particulate filters and NOx adsorbers necessary for meeting the 2007-2010 emission standards for heavy-duty engines and the Tier 2 light-duty standards.
  • Nonroad Diesel Fuel
    The following sulfur requirements are applicable to Nonroad, Locomotive and Marine (NRLM) fuels, with the exception of heavy fuel oils (HFO) used in Category 2 and Category 3 marine diesel engines.
    • 500 ppm: Sulfur limit of 500 ppm became effective in June 2007 for nonroad, locomotive and marine fuels.
    • 15 ppm: Sulfur limit of 15 ppm (ULSD) becomes effective in June 2010 for nonroad fuel, and in June 2012 for locomotive and marine fuels. ULSD has been legislated for nonroad engines to enable advanced emission control systems for meeting the Tier 4 nonroad emission standards.
  • Category 3 Marine Engine Fuel
    The United States and Canada applied to the IMO to establish an emission control area (ECA) along their shorelines. Once the ECA is established, it will trigger international and US EPA sulfur limits in marine fuels:
    • International IMO limits applicable in ECAs are 1% (10,000 ppm) sulfur beginning in 2010, and 0.1% (1,000 ppm) sulfur from 2015. SOx aftertreatment, such as SOx scrubbers, are allowed in lieu of low sulfur fuel.
    • US EPA 2009 EPA Category 3 marine engine rule established a sulfur limit of 1,000 ppm for marine fuels produced and/or sold for use within an ECA. SOx aftertreatment can be used in lieu of low sulfur fuel. Additional flexibilities apply to vessels operated on the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway: the low sulfur requirements can be deferred—subject to fuel availability and economic hardship provisions—and are not applicable to steamships.

Specifications