Clean biofuel: out of the frying pan, into the tank

When their boss asked them to make a 'green' fuel for the company fleet, a small team retreated into a laboratory armed with used vegetable oil and some high-school chemistry to create their first batch of biofuel. Now the challenge will be a commercial one.

Refuelling one of the 130 trucks with BioDiesel at the S S Lootah plant in Al Quoz Industrial Area in Dubai.
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DUBAI // The small metal container is not what one associates with high-tech clean fuels. In the corner of the laboratory, next to an array of sophisticated equipment, it looks unimpressive.

But six months ago, this container produced the first few litres of a clean fuel that is now being used in scores of heavy trucks.

The breakthrough was the work of Abdul Vaheed and Reji Nair, along with several colleagues.

Their boss, Yousif Saeed Lootah, the director of the influential Dubai-based S S Lootah Group, wanted to build a "green" company fleet, and set them about making a fuel to power it. He already had 30 vehicles that ran on compressed natural gas, as well as several electric and hybrid cars. Now he asked them to make biofuel by recycling used cooking oil, which is readily available and often thrown away.

"Dubai is producing so much waste," Mr Lootah said. He estimated that Dubai threw away a thousand tonnes of waste cooking oil each month.

All of this has to be collected, as food companies and restaurants are prohibited from disposing of it in the sewage network. The problem is what happens next.

"Pouring the oil into a sink is bad," said Mr Nair, the manager of the oil and gas division of the company's Material Lab. "It clogs up the sewage network and can create problems at the sewage treatment plants."

Burying it in landfill is not much better. With no local use for the oil, it is usually sold off to make biodiesel or detergents in Europe and Asia.

Since the end of November, about six 250-litre drums of used oil arrive at SSLootah's Al Quoz facility each day. They are processed in a small plant, built in-house at a cost of Dh1 million. The technology itself is neither new nor complicated.

"It is in our 12th-grade chemistry books," Mr Vaheed said.

First, the waste oil is heated to 70°C. It then goes into a reactive vessel, where alcohol and sodium hydroxide are added to it to start a chemical reaction known as transesterification. After a few hours, the oil is purified into a liquid similar in colour and chemical composition to diesel fuel, Mr Nair said, pointing to a tank of pale yellow liquid.

The plant produces 1,000 litres of biodiesel a day. The biodiesel is then added to ordinary diesel fuel, in a ratio of about one unit of biodiesel for 19 of standard diesel. This five per cent mixture, known to specialists as B5, is mandatory for use in some countries, including in Europe.

Biodiesel produces half the greenhouse emissions of standard diesel, Mr Vaheed said, and 10 per cent less particulate matter, the tiny particles of soot that cause cancers and respiratory diseases. For the B5 mix, the emissions reduction is 2.5 per cent. The B5 mix is useful because lorries can run on it without modification. To use fuel with a higher biodiesel content, they would need major engine changes.

"We studied blending it up to B50 [containing half clean fuel]," he said. "In the UK, they are making B100. But then you have to do some major modifications to the engine."

Mr Vaheed said the five per cent mix is a good start for the company.

"We have implemented it and now we [will] think whether it can be possibly commercialised," he said. "We have certified internally there is no harm done to the engine, we are now doing independent testing."

Mr Vaheed said the biggest challenge to scaling up the programme would be the steady supply of used cooking oil.

"Nobody likes this business because it depends on someone else," he said. Only five companies in the UAE collect the oil and sell it on.

"We are able to access the used oil because Dubai Municipality has regulated it and it reaches the consolidators," he said. "But if you improve the collection process, this can go up by a huge amount."