Circular Economy

The first city running its vehicles on biodiesel from waste cooking oil

This biodiesel does not require any engine modifications on diesel vehicles.

This biodiesel does not require any engine modifications on diesel vehicles. Image: REUTERS/Max Rossi

David Thorpe
Special Consultant, Sustainable Cities Collective
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Dubai is to become the first city in the world to formally adopt biodiesel made 100% locally from 100% waste cooking oil for use in its municipal vehicles.

This follows the signing of a deal between the Municipality and Neutral Fuels LLC to replace diesel in its vehicles with clean biodiesel. This biodiesel does not require any engine modifications on diesel vehicles.

Karl W Feilder, CEO & Chairman of Neutral Fuels (right), said: “This is a fantastic day for the UAE, for Dubai and for biodiesel. The Municipality is creating a sustainability benchmark which the rest of the world should note. We are proud to be part of the UAE’s bold vision for a sustainable future, and applaud the Municipality for making such a strategic move.”

HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is responsible for initiatives to promote fuel efficiency in the country and create a truly sustainable city within the next three decades, under his UAE Vision 2021  and Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy 2030.

Its 11 point program for sustainable infrastructure includes targets for almost doubling air quality, more than doubling the percentage of treated waste, moving from almost 0 to 24% renewable energy, investing in water efficiency, and improvement in logistics and communications infrastructure.

At a ceremony yesterday, which also happened to be Car Free Day, at the Municipality Headquarters in Al Rigga, Dubai, visitors witnessed a life-sized demonstration of how a biorefinery works.

“Neutral Fuels is keen for everyone to see for themselves exactly how Dubai’s used vegetable cooking oil is chemically converted into pure, clean biodiesel – so we recreated our Dubai production facility in the Municipality car park!” said Feilder.

“It’s Car Free Day, so the car park was going to be empty, and we thought it would be a great way to explain to a lot of people the complexity of making high quality biodiesel in clear, easy steps,” said the clean fuel pioneer.

The biodiesel will cost no more than conventional diesel. Some of it comes from McDonalds outlets.

It also results in fewer carbon monoxide emissions from exhaust pipes as well as tackling global warming. (Biodiesel from used cooking oil can result in an 84% reduction in carbon footprint compared with fossil diesel, without any modifications to the vehicle (UK Dept. of Transport report, January 2008)).

Most modern diesel cars and trucks are capable of running on 100% pure biodiesel (known as B100) in all but the coldest of European winter temperatures. This is obviously not a problem in the UAE.

Diesel motors run better, burn cleaner, emit less SOx and last longer on biodiesel fuel.

Reusing cooking oils

It is possible to run some diesel engines on vegetable oil, new or reused. The legal situation varies from country to country but in the UK for example, anyone can make up to 2,000 litres of bio-fuel a year for their own use without registering to pay Excise Duty.

But the technology as well as the possibility of ruining your engine mean that it’s probably not worth trying to do it yourself. If you want to run your diesel vehicle on raw vegetable oil, used cooking oils or fuels derived from them, then you may have to convert the vehicle to run on biodiesel. Vegetable oil (reused or not) can be purchased from reputable suppliers. It seems that Neutral Fuels’ biodiesel has been specifically formulated to run on the vehicles used in the UEA.

Normally, to adapt a diesel vehicle you would need to check firstly what types of fuel your engine can take and whether you can buy a conversion kit for it. The kits heat the vegetable oil before it goes into the engine, thereby reducing its viscosity.

There are several commercially available kits, as well as homemade conversions. Whichever option you go for you’re advised to monitor or change fuel filters on a more frequent basis for at least the first six months after the transition, until the system has been cleaned of deposits. Remember that biodiesel is a good solvent and may soften or dissolve rubber parts, so replace these with plastic alternatives.

It’s possible to collect used vegetable cooking oils from cafes, pubs and canteens, and process it into a fuel. Usually this is done commercially and you can buy direct from such companies. John Nicholson, who runs a Bio-Power organisation in North Wales, observes that success depends upon the make and model of vehicle. Many older diesel vehicles will run fine on reused vegetable oil bio-fuel, especially older Mercedes, Volvo, Landrovers, Renaults, Peugeots, etc. More modern engines are designed not to run on them.

Types of biofuels

Also, there are many types of biofuels. Here are the main different types:



In the sugar-to-ethanol process, sucrose is obtained from sugar crops such as sugar cane, sugar beet and sweet sorghum, and fermented to ethanol, which is then concentrated. The starch-to-ethanol process requires, in addition to this, the hydrolysis of starch into glucose, and uses more energy than the sugar-to-ethanol route.

Conventional biodiesel

Biodiesel may be produced from soybean, canola, oil palm or sunflower, animal fats and used cooking oil. The conversion process uses methanol or ethanol. Untreated raw oils are sometimes used, but this is not recommended due to the risks of engine damage and gelling of the lubricating oil.

Hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO)

This is produced by hydrogenating vegetable oils or animal fats and is also known as hydrogenation-derived renewable diesel (HDRD). The process has not yet been fully commercialised.


Pyrolysis, like gasification (below), involves heating biomass with limited oxygen supply. Pyrolysis oil, or other thermochemically-derived biomass liquids, can be used directly as a fuel, or converted to biodiesel, but the process is still in the demonstration stage. In the future, plants such as miscanthus and other energy crops may be used as well as agricultural ‘waste’ products such as straw.

Pyrolysis also produces biochar, which can be used to improve soil texture and ecology, as well as sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil, increasing its ability to retain nutrients and release them slowly.


Biomethane or biogas

Biogas (biomethane, CH4, usually with some CO2 and hydrogen sulphide present) can be produced through anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion of organic waste, animal manure and sewage sludge, or dedicated crops such as maize, grass and crop wheat. It also produces fertiliser. Anaerobic digestion is becoming popular but has a high up-front cost and needs a reliable, year-round supply of feedstock.

The biogas produced may be used to generate heat and electricity, or upgraded to biomethane by removing the other gases. It is then chemically identical to ‘natural gas’. It can be injected into the natural gas grid or used as fuel in natural gas vehicles. The numbers of natural gas vehicles (NGV) have started to grow rapidly, particularly during the last decade.

Bio-synthetic gas (bio-syngas or bio-SNG)

Bio-SNG is processed from biomass using gasification, which produces a mixture of gases. To generate biomethane from bio-SNG, it needs to be cleaned, filtered and processed further, using advanced catalytic and chemical processing techniques; these will ultimately combine the hydrogen and carbon monoxide in the gas to form methane. It’s an intensive process.

This article is published in collaboration with the Sustainable Cities Collective. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: David Thorpe is a Special Consultant of the Sustainable Cities Collective.

Image: An attendant prepares to refuel a car at a petrol station. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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