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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Vegetable Oil Is Gaining Traction As A Biofuel

  • Biofuels have grown increasingly popular in recent years as a way to reduce emissions when it comes to both transport and heating.
  • In the UK, around 1.7 million homes still rely on kerosene heaters, and the government believes those could be adapted to run on hydro-treated vegetable oil.
  • In Mexico, there is a major push to expand the use of biofuels from cooking oil for public transportation, which would be a low-cost alternative for diesel.

Interest in biofuels has exploded in recent years, and as governments pursue both energy security and lower emissions, that interest is only rising. Following a flurry of new climate policies worldwide, energy companies are looking to reduce their emissions while ensuring the stability of their legacy businesses. Meanwhile, countries around the world are looking for energy sources that can be secured domestically. The U.K. and Mexico are two such countries, with both of them now looking to vegetable oil as a potential energy source for heating and transport. The use of cooking oils and animal fat in biofuel production is not a new concept, as several refiners in the U.S. use these products to produce fuels that entitle them to government tax credits. When gasoline demand plunged during the pandemic, oil companies were able to continue operations at their refineries by converting them to produce biofuels and taking the valuable government credits that came with them. The feedstocks came from used cooking oil and animal fat, which are typically deemed to be worthless – although they are sometimes hard to procure for that exact reason. 

As several cities announce bans on the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles within the next decade, companies are racing to find alternatives to petrol and diesel, with the electric battery coming out on top. Some major automakers have also discussed the potential for the hydrogen fuel cell (HFCV). And others are looking to biodiesel to fuel the cars of the future. Biodiesel can be produced using animal fats and vegetable oil, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the roads. Vegetable oil can be used as a fuel for diesel engines as straight vegetable oil (SVO) or as biodiesel following conversion. 

Related: Spanish Utility Says Europe's Energy Crisis Isn’t Over Yet

Biodiesel, which is generally viewed as cleaner and more effective in engines than SVO, is produced by a chemical process called transesterification, which involves a reaction with methanol using caustic soda as a catalyst. This reduces the viscosity and boiling point of the fuel, making it more like that of traditional diesel fuel. Most diesel vehicle automakers have approved the use of B5, a mix of 95 percent petroleum diesel and 5 percent biodiesel. And some manufacturers are making engines capable of running on B20 (20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent traditional diesel) or higher. However, the shift to using greater quantities of biodiesel has been slow to take off, with companies generally focusing on other green vehicle options, such as electric and HFCV. 

But in recent months, the idea of using vegetable oil as a feedstock has gained more traction. In the UK, politicians are proposing the use of vegetable oil for heating in rural areas. A new bill encouraging the removal of duties on renewable liquid heating fuels, as well as incentives to reduce the use of kerosene in existing boilers, is being introduced to parliament by the former environment secretary George Eustice.

Around 1,7 million homes in the U.K. still rely on kerosene boilers, as they are not connected to the mains gas grid. There are already plans in place to ban the buying of new boilers from 2026, as homes switch to air-source or ground-source heat pump systems, but this new bill could help boost the uptake of green alternatives to kerosene between now and then. Eustice suggests that fitting new heating systems can be extremely costly, creating a “huge barrier” to uptake. This new bill would support homes across the country in the minor adaption of kerosene boilers to make them suitable to run on hydro-treated vegetable oil (HVO), which could reduce related greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 88 percent, according to Eustice. 

Meanwhile, in Mexico, there has been a major push to expand the use of biofuels from cooking oil for public transportation. Mexico’s public transport sector continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels, with few incentives from the government to switch to less-polluting alternatives. But Jorge Tenorio, the CEO of Renov Biodiesel, suggests that biodiesel could be the alternative needed to power the transport system of the future. He explains, “The main raw material currently used in Mexico to produce biodiesel is used cooking oil. For every litre of recycled oil collected, one litre of biodiesel is produced, which is cheaper than the traditional diesel produced by PEMEX.” And the Advanced Biodiesel Cluster (BDA) of the Mexican Centre for Energy Innovation believes that 360 million liters of used oil could be obtained in cities of over 100,000 inhabitants, with the potential of providing a low-cost, clean alternative to diesel. 

As interest in biofuels continues to grow around the globe, some countries are finally putting theory into practice by introducing major vegetable oil-produced biofuels into the energy mix. If new policies are passed on the use of biofuels, we could soon be fuelling the green transition on waste oils, previously destined for the drain or landfill.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com


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