Recycled Cooking Oil Could Be The Key To Flying Friendlier Chinese Skies

China’s underground cooking-oil trade could provide almost five hundred million gallons of biofuel annually

image via (cc) flickr user sterlic

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a...well, actually, it’s just a plane–specifically, a Boeing 737–that touched down in Beijing after a two hour flight from Shanghai on March 21st. But what set this Boeing 737 apart from the rest of the jumbo jet set is the fact that, rather than burning standard airplane fuel, the passenger flight was running on a special biofuel combination of fifty percent ordinary gas and fifty percent recycled cooking oil–a first for the Chinese airline industry.

Biofuel has been powering passenger planes since 2011, when Lufthansa introduced the green gas on an Airbus A321 flying the airline's Hamburg-Frankfurt-Hamburg route. But, as Quartz points out, China’s moving forward with eco-friendly fueled passenger flights is particularly noteworthy, as the very cooking oils used in this type of biofuel are already being widely traded in that country’s illegal–but nevertheless robust–underground economy. Writes Quartz:

China has long struggled to contain its trade in “gutter oil,” a practice in which unlicensed vendors buy used cooking oil from some restaurants and resell it to others. At best, these vendors clean and process the oil before selling it on; at worst, they dredge old oil from drains that then they sell as new.

Last year, Boeing partnered with Commercial Aircraft of China to develop biofuel from precisely this kind of old oil, and the companies estimate China’s gutter oil supplies could produce 1.8 billion liters (476 million gallons) of biofuel every year.

China, in other words, has what might be the makings of the perfect marketplace for this emerging green tech. And given the country’s well-documented pollution problems, that’s a very good thing. What’s more, the process itself by which cooking oil is refined for use as airline fuel results in zero carbon dioxide emissions, explained Boeing VP of research and development Wu Dongyang in a CCTV News report last fall:

Last November the United States and China entered into a “historic” agreement in which both countries pledged to significantly cut their respective carbon emissions, of which airplanes play a significant role. While scaling biofuel for industry-wide use has proven difficult for the aviation field as a whole, Quartz points to an estimate which claims biofuels could help airlines slash their carbon footprints by up to eighty percent.

They’ll probably still lose your luggage, though.


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