Kitchen Oil for Jet Fuel?

on April 03, 2017 at 3:15 PM

Airport workers fill up the tank of an AChina has an innovation in the jet-fuel industry – waste kitchen oil from restaurants will be used to mass- produce jet fuel. While this technology may seem like something out of The Jetsons, it is one step closer to reality. Next year, a major state-owned refiner will begin construction on a production plant for these purposes.

100,000 tons of waste kitchen oil can be converted into 30,000 tons of aviation-grade biofuel per year at this new facility. Undertaking this project is a subsidiary of Sinopec: Zhenhai Refining and Chemical, based in Ningbo, Zhejiang province. The fuel produced at this plant would be marketed towards airlines that fly long-haul international flights. Specifically targeted would be those whose destination are countries that charge high emissions taxes.

Biofuel does not add extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which is why it has been looked at as a source of “clean” energy – it comes from plants or animals and is already part of the biological cycle. However, this alone has not alleviated concerns of researchers. Critics have been vocal concerning the storage problems that comes with biofuel, as it is not suitable for long-term storage. Further, many believe that fuel flow in pipelines will be constricted or blocked entirely, as biofuel tends to form a gel at low temperatures.

These concerns are not unfound: last year, the US Air Force reported that jet fighters utilizing biofuel had been infested by colonies of bacteria – colonies which threaten the safety of mechanical and electric components.

Unsurprisingly, spokesmen for Zhenhai Refining have been quick to say that passengers need not worry, because the fuel would be “absolutely safe” for planes.

The project was started originally in 2011 by Sinopec, China’s largest oil company. The high carbon tariff on aircrafts imposed by the European Union has incentivized research into alternative fuel sources, which is what inspired these advancements. Sinopec synthesized the first sample back in 2012, but it was not until March of 2015 when biofuel was used in a commercial flight. Hainan Airlines, in a Boeing 737, used a 50/50 mix of biofuel and conventional jet fuel on a flight carrying 156 passengers from Shanghai to Beijing.

The firm is confident that it will break ground in 2018, and will begin producing output that can meet annual demand immediately. Cost of investment, or price of the product, has yet to be disclosed to the public.

More than 1,500 flights have flown successfully using biofuel since 2011, according to Boeing. All of these flights were for demonstration, however, and do not hold a candle to the 100,000 daily flights that traverse the globe, which continue to utilize conventional fuel.

Utilizing kitchen waste products was not without its hurdles, however. According to researchers who pioneered the original innovation, the waste products comes loaded with all that you’d expect from Chinese kitchens: vegetable oil, animal fat, various proteins, salt, pepper, etc.

Thus, the raw product must undergo thorough filtering using sophisticated technology before it is ready to be used. It begins by heating the oil to over 350 degrees Celsius, which eliminates the potentially damaging water molecules present in oil. Then hydrogen is added to the oil to extend shelf life and improve combustion efficiency. As it currently stands, these expensive but necessary measures have added to the cost of the final product, making it more expensive than traditional fossil fuel.

Regardless, the biofuel processed by Sinopec has met stringent safety standards. For example, concerns of a gel forming have been tested by exposing the fuel to temperatures as low as negative 47 degrees Celsius – gel did not form. Moreover, the filtering process used by Sinopec should be able to kill any of the bacterial that previously has formed due to biofuel used.

From a chemical standpoint, researchers claim that biofuel is nearly identical to fossil fuel. When looking at certain performance benchmarks, it even outperforms.

Raw material may be more difficult to find than one would expect, however, presenting yet another challenge for Sinopec. Chinese restaurants and kitchens produce over 5 million tons of waste oil each year. But most of that waste is disposed of, poured down the drain. Some is sold to underground shops that recycle it and sell it back to restaurants, and cheap commodity known as “gutter oil.” This type of oil is one of the biggest concerns in terms of food safety in China.

The recent rise in regulation of greenhouse gas emissions has laid the groundwork for new industries such as this to pop up around the world. Airlines were primarily focused on reducing carbon emissions by reducing the amount of fuel used; less flights, and a concentration on local travel. However, the regulations are making new sources of fuel more and more viable.

One major problem, however, is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. These plants oftentimes need substantial profit to grow and continue research and development. However, the major airlines are only interested in purchasing from companies that have substantial research and development. The same is true for the cost of fuel – only scale can make production cheaper, and airlines are only willing to buy when it is cheap. In short, the market is too young, and no one is willing to take a risk when hundreds of lives are at stake.

A pilot program started by the International Civil Aviation Organization (which both the United States and China are members of) has released new target for emissions, which they plan to reduce in the long term. The program begins in 2021, however, it is unlikely any of the targets will be met without an alternative source of fuel.

A recent Forbes article has recommended that these airlines get in on the alternative fuel industry now, as it makes most financial sense. If they invest in the future properly and begin investing now, these bio-refineries will have the funds to scale production, lower costs, and increase research and development. The article also recommends collaboration between airlines and aircraft manufacturers to develop efficient fuel delivery mechanisms.

There is clearly a future for airlines in this renewables space, especially given the fact that air travel is expected to double within the next 20 years. The only question remaining is how proactive airlines will be in adapting to the new global landscape concerning greenhouse gas emissions, and whether they will challenge the status quo or not.