As of December, McDonald's delivery trucks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have logged over 1 million kilometers (800,000 miles) on 100-percent, unblended biodiesel made from recycled cooking oil used in the chain's restaurants. The program, begun 17 months earlier, isn't the only one the company oversees: similar programs are in place in the US, Europe, and Australia.
When I write about biofuels, I usually look at plant feedstocks that can be grown and efficiently converted into high-performance biodiesel and other kinds of transportation fuels. I don't cover the small, local, recycled cooking oil initiatives I've seen in my own town, and in other areas. Why? Because they haven't seemed serious or large-scale enough to make a difference or help advance the technology. For instance, many of them required converted engines.
But McDonald's has changed my mind. They are anyone's definition of big. And they've been at this for a few years.
The company's sustainability program now includes almost 75 percent of eligible US restaurants, and the number is expanding. Used cooking oil is taken to a distribution facility and sold to various companies for reuse, including those that make biodiesel. McDonald's USA says the average participating US restaurant recycles almost 1,450 gallons of used cooking oil every year.
In Europe, more than 80 percent of the used cooking oil is converted into biodiesel, and McDonald's trucks there get about 37 percent of their fuel from this source. In the UK, 100 percent of restaurant cooking oil goes into biofuel for delivery trucks in that region.
In the UAE, 100 percent of McDonald's restaurants send all their used cooking oil to biodiesel maker Neutral Fuels, which converts it to 100 percent biodiesel, unblended with petroleum-based fuels, for McDonald's UAE's entire fleet of delivery trucks. Neutral Fuels operates an entirely closed-loop system. The company was the first commercial producer of 100 percent biodiesel in the Middle East.
On its website, Neutral Fuels points out that the risks of depending on agricultural biofuel feedstock are much higher than depending on recycled cooking oil as a consistent source of supply, since feedstock can account for up to 95 percent of biodiesel production costs. "Used cooking oil, ordinarily a waste product, substantially reduces this cost and improves the financial viability of biodiesel production. Securing a predictable volume and quality of used cooking oil gives us a level of consistency that allows us to build an appropriately sized biorefinery to optimize profitability for all parties and stabilize pricing."
Neutral Fuels says it collects more than 25,000 liters (6,604.3 gallons) of used cooking oil every month by the same trucks that use the biodiesel, and that deliver fresh cooking oil and other supplies to the restaurants. The company claims that biodiesel is better at lubricating engines than petroleum-based diesel, helping to slow down wear and prevent failure, and also acts as a cleansing agent in fuel systems to improve efficiency.
The company's conversion process includes a patented glycerine separation method that it says eliminates the variability caused by traditional, complex processes such as centrifuging. It also uses a flash drum technology for more reliable recovery of methanol that produces a higher quality fuel than traditional methods, and waterless purification, which produces more consistent fuel.