The History of Biofuels: Used Cooking Oil as a Recyclable Energy Source

If every restaurant or food service company in the U.S. recycled their cooking oil, millions of gallons of biodiesel could be produced. According to the North American Renderers Association, over 4 billion pounds of used cooking oil is generated by restaurants and others in the food service industry.

Stop to consider just how much this is. It takes about 8.5 gallons of used cooking oil to make one gallon of biodiesel. That breaks down to 517.65 million gallons of biodiesel. Plus, that production also creates the byproduct glycerin which is used in beauty care products, soaps, and pharmaceuticals.

Glycerin can be useful as a feedstock for cattle or dust suppressant on driveways, on roads to sandpits or quarries, and on rural roads where run-off isn’t a concern, so even byproducts get used. It’s amazing to think about how much biodiesel and glycerin used restaurant cooking oil can generate.

The History of Biodiesel

You have to go back to the 1890s to find the first diesel engine that could run on vegetable oil. Dr. Rudolph Diesel believed there was value in vegetable oil-powered diesel engines for remote areas where petroleum products were hard to come by and for farmers who had an abundance of crops he knew could power their tractors and farm equipment, creating a sustainable source of fuel for them. His idea was publicly demonstrated at the 1900 World’s Fair in France.

Dr. Diesel died in 1913, but his vision didn’t die with him. Fast forward to Belgium in the 1930s when scientists started looking at the use of vegetable oil to become biodiesel. During WWII, petroleum diesel was harder to get hold of due to shortages and skyrocketing costs. A Belgian inventor found a way to convert vegetable oil into fatty acid alkyl esters, creating biodiesel.

While industrial production of biofuel would be patented in the 1950s and 1960s, low oil prices kept it from becoming a mainstream effort. The first biodiesel production wouldn’t actually happen for another five decades in the U.S.

Pacific Biodiesel became one of the first biodiesel production plants in 1996. The facility started converting used cooking oil into biodiesel. After 9-11, oil prices climbed and energy security became an important focus. Within four years, biodiesel production was over 1 billion gallons worldwide, especially in the EU.

What about in the U.S.? In December 2020, 159 million gallons of biodiesel were produced. Of that production, 74 million gallons were sold as pure B100 biodiesel, and 73 million gallons were sold as a feedstock for biodiesel blends that contain a mix of pure biodiesel and petroleum-based biodiesel.

You can also use biodiesel in planes. Virgin Atlantic flew the first flight with biofuel in 2008. It was a 20% biofuel mixture, but it was a smash success. The U.S. Air Force conducted the first military flight using a 50/50 blend in June 2010. In 2022, the first 100% biofuel flight was a success. The Airbus ZEROe Demonstrator flew from Toulouse to Nice, France.

At the start of 2023, there were 59 biodiesel plants in the U.S. capable of producing 2.086 billion gallons. Iowa has the largest number of plants and the capacity to produce 483 million gallons per year. It’s still a growing field, but there is incredible value to it given the number of restaurants, food trucks, and food service industries with used cooking oil to dispose of.

How Does Used Cooking Oil Turn Into Biodiesel?

Once you have used cooking oil, how is it converted to biodiesel? It’s collected and transported to a facility equipped with the tools and chemicals needed to start the process. The oil must be filtered to remove any particles like flour, meats, and charred batter scraps. Typically, this means the waste oil is allowed to settle for upwards of a week at room temperature. Once it’s filtered, it’s heated to remove any excess water.

After the filtered cooking oil has been heated, a catalyst is created. This mixture can vary slightly, but it might be a mixture of ethylene glycol and calcium nitrate tetrahydrate that’s mixed with sodium hydroxide. This is stirred into the oil and heated and pressurized to create the reaction where the biodiesel separates from glycerin.

Biodiesel may be sold as pure 100% biodiesel, but it’s commonly mixed with petroleum-based diesel because pure biodiesel will gel in cold temperatures, which can cause engine wear.

How Do You Recycle Used Cooking Oil?

Corn oil and canola oil are just two of the many vegetable oils that are useful for biodiesel production. As a food service business owner, you should start saving your used cooking oil. There’s value to it.

A used cooking oil collection company will pick up your oil, pump it into the truck, and bring it to a facility. In return, you get substantial discounts on essential services like grease trap cleanings and inspections. You keep oil from going to the landfill where it will soak into the ground and take a long time to break down.

You keep it out of the sewers where it can clump and cause fatbergs. In Oregon, you cannot dump used cooking oil down the sink or an outside drain hole. Doing so can lead to steep fines and a lot of negative publicity. It’s the law in the Portland area to have a working grease trap that’s inspected regularly. Those inspection reports must be filed with the city, and you have to work with a grease trap cleaning company that’s city approved.

Northwest Biofuel is a city-approved cleaning service. When you pair grease trap cleaning services and cooking oil collection, you get a discount. Plus, if you leave us a key to collect oil or clean and inspect your grease trap after hours, we offer a substantial $25 discount for that, too. Our standard grease trap cleaning service is already set at an unbeatable price.

You do not have to sign a contract. You’re not locked into anything. You’ll have plenty of time to get to know our technicians and customer service team and ensure you’re happy. If you are ever unsatisfied, let us know because you do not have to pay for the service.

We’re a one-stop shop for grease trap cleaning, repair, inspection, and used cooking oil collection. A full grease trap cleaning and inspection rarely takes longer than 30 minutes, and you’ll end up with a FOG report for your records. A second copy of the FOG report is sent to the city to ensure you comply with local requirements.

Give us a call, fill out the online form, or click the chat bubble to reach us. Northwest Biofuel prides itself on around-the-clock availability and flexible scheduling. We’re here to ensure your food service business or restaurant is in compliance in a stress-free way.