It was a typical English rainy day in 2009, a friend of mine had offered to show me around a biodiesel company which he worked for in central London. As we toured their small facility, I had to ask the same question again; “So, you take used cooking oil from restaurants and you convert it into a sustainable diesel which can be used in a vehicle’s engine and it burns cleaner than petro-diesel?”. “Yes, that’s correct!” was the answer (again). I was dumbfounded at the simplicity of the concept and a little surprised that this was the first I had heard of biofuels.
The following year, I moved back to Oman and immediately looked at what restaurants were doing with their used cooking oil and noticed that it was being collected and dumped, or worse, put back into the food chain (which is carcinogenic). I then set up a logistics company with two friends which focused on the collection of used cooking oil for conversion to biodiesel and we started with our first customer in Oman, McDonald’s. Since 2011 we’ve been sending all of our used cooking oil to biodiesel plants in Europe, as there is currently no facility in Oman. We are proud to say that today, all used cooking oils collected from restaurants and commercial establishments in Oman are being recycled into biofuels, albeit outside of the country.
In 2018, Oman announced that its subsidy on fuel was to be removed and a formula-based pricing system was adopted. This was a pivotal moment for us as it finally made commercial sense to build a refining plant and use biodiesel in Oman to create a textbook circular economy. This is when we reached out to the team at Green Fuels in the UK, a pioneer in sustainable fuels since 2003.
Earlier this year, we incorporated Wakud with a mission of creating a biofuels ecosystem in Oman. Wakud, is a joint venture between an Omani entrepreneur Maher Al Habsi, myself, and Green Fuels. Wakud will play a leading role in the energy transition in Oman and the Arabian Gulf. We will shortly be shipping a state-of-the-art FuelMatic GSX20 biorefinery from the UK for installation and commissioning at its site in Khazaen Economic City, about 70 kilometres west of Muscat. The plant has the capacity to process 20 tonnes per day of used cooking oil (UCO), collected from restaurants and food processing establishments, into European EN14214 standard biodiesel for local consumption as road fuel.
Selecting Green Fuels as our refining technology partner was an easy decision given our similar belief that biodiesel has potential beyond road fuel with sustainable aviation and marine fuel as future areas for growth. Green Fuels have developed a strategy accordingly, starting with the founding of its sister company, Green Fuels Research (GFR).
Among several proprietary advanced biofuels processes that GFR has developed is SABR (sustainable aviation through biofuels refining), which converts biodiesel into biokerosene (jet fuel) and sustainable marine fuel, both drop-in blend fuels which require no modification to aero or marine engines. These waste-derived fuels, apart from being verifiably sustainable, are the shortest, least costly route to decarbonisation of air and marine transport, which together account for 5% of global carbon emissions.
Moving goods by sea is efficient on a purely commercial, tonne-per-kilometre basis, but the volume of marine traffic means that this sector accounts for around 3% of CO2 emissions. Efficiencies in vessel design are possible but ships are expensive, long-lived assets therefore it will take a long time to upgrade the world’s fleet. Electrification is currently not a viable option for large ships on long routes and other alternative propulsion systems are prohibitively costly. Most ships today use marine diesel or heavy fuel oil and substituting these with sustainable, liquid alternatives will make an important contribution to decarbonisation.
As for aviation, the sector generates around 2% of global carbon emissions and consumed 360 million tons of fuel in 2019, with only a miniscule amount of sustainable fuel used. There is, therefore, a pressing need to transition and decarbonise this sector. Aviation is a key application for sustainable fuels because the energy needed to move a large airliner long distances can only be supplied by liquid fuel. As with ships, no current battery or alternative propulsion system comes close to delivering the required energy density, and will require billions in R&D investment and take years, possibly decades, to become commercially viable, which itself is not guaranteed in two understandably risk-averse sectors. Thus, proven, drop-in, liquid sustainable fuels are demonstrably the shortest route to decarbonisation.
Our plant in Oman is the first step towards building an integrated biodiesel and sustainable aviation/marine fuel value chain in Oman, and eventually throughout the Gulf, and will thus establish the Sultanate as the standard bearer in sustainable development, advanced biofuels production and technological innovation in the region. We want to create a biofuel ecosystem in Oman and will achieve this via knowledge transfer (we will host internships at our plant and at Green Fuels), and by collaborating with Omani SMEs to explore other avenues of feedstock for biofuels such as fish oils, fruits oils, algae and more.
The last decade has seen unprecedented disruption in the energy sector and a profound energy transformation as the global trend shifts from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The recent oil price crash has accelerated the requirement for increased diversification in the energy sector, in alignment with key themes of Oman’s Vision 2040. Biofuels will play a role in Oman’s energy transition and Wakud aims to lead the way on biofuels and to catalyse the sector in Oman.