Gutter Oil Trade Takes Flight in China

Published on Author Walker Helvey

Food safety has long been a problem in China, due in large part to the sale and resale of used cooking oil within the restaurant industry. The black market trade of this so called “gutter oil” now faces competition from an internationally renowned corporation, The Boeing Company.

gutter-oilOn March 21 of this year, a Hainan Airlines Boeing 737 successfully completed a flight from Shanghai to Beijing running on a fifty-fifty blend of used cooking oil and standard jet fuel. According to Boeing China’s president Ian Thomas, this flight represents “a significant milestone” for China’s aviation industry.

The ability of airlines to use gutter oil to power flights generates two positive impacts for China. First, the entry of airlines into the gutter oil market will hamper the existing black market trade that occurs in the country. Boeing has partnered with Commercial Aircraft of China to develop biofuel from old cooking oil, and restaurants may now be more inclined to sell this oil to airlines at a premium as opposed to distributing it illegally and putting themselves at risk. Less gutter oil trade between Chinese restaurants will also improve food safety problems from a consumer health perspective.

Additionally, biofuels have the potential to reduce airlines’ carbon emissions by 50 to 80 percent. Many airlines have tried developing biofuels from plant matter, but have incurred significant costs in doing so. As of now, cheap gutter oil seems to be a better alternative to this problem. Estimates indicate that gutter oil in China could produce nearly 1.8 billion liters of biofuel every year. Getting the oil off the black market and into the hands of international corporations produces a win-win solution for all parties involved.


5 Responses to Gutter Oil Trade Takes Flight in China

  1. This seems like a no-brainer for restaurants in China, especially given China’s gargantuan carbon footprint. The reusability of standard cooking oil already acts as a major selling point. One of my middle school teachers had a car that runs entirely on cooking oil, and since then I’ve tried to keep relatively up to date on its applications. If Boeing’s fuel recipe can be taken to flights of every distance, and other vehicles, the global effects would be monumental. I’m unfamiliar with physiochemical patent law, but Boeing might just have an extraordinarily valuable asset on its balance sheet.

  2. I wonder what the transition costs look like for China. Similar technologies have been around for years – though maybe not in airplanes – but have seen little widespread adoption. However, perhaps China’s young status leaves it room to build its infrastructure – rather than rebuild it – with close attention to these alternatives.

    • I see large barriers in collecting the volumes necessary to provide for the aerospace industry from individual restaurants. Adoption into a bussing systems seem more realistic.

  3. Because the tough cost of initial production capability has been the primary concern for commercialization of biofuel, gutter oil plan seems like an ideal breakthrough not only in China but other countries as well. I wonder how Boeing would play in disseminating and developing the technology.

  4. My understanding is that cooking oil has little to no sulfur. Sulfur is a barrier to lowering the emissions from using regular [Chinese] diesel fuel, as it is not compatible with catalytic converters and with some of the emissions cycle controls. So biodiesel can indeed be used in all sorts of places, with modest costs for cleaning it up sufficiently to burn in a truck.