Kitchen fat going down drain

Look to sewers for fuel, Royal Academy of Engineering urges Whitehall

Image credit: Dreamstime

UK government encouraged to do more to incentivise development of biofuels from alternative sources such as sewer 'fatbergs' or dregs from whisky distilleries.

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) today challenged the UK government to do more to incentivise the development of so-called second generation or advanced biofuels to boost energy security and meet climate targets - and it put forward some imaginative suggestions about where such fuels could come from.

Fatbergs - huge lumps of congealed kitchen fat and oil that end up down drains and become lodged in pipes and sewers - have been proposed as one option, while waste resulting from the production of Scotch whisky is considered to be another.  

Removing the large greasy obstacles blocking the flow of sewage and turning these enormous blobs into fuel has already been trialled and has the double advantage of dealing with the bete noir of ‘flushers’ – the colloquial name for sewer workers – while skirting round some of the objections to more mainstream biofuels, which can use up large amounts of precious land.

The RAEng acknowledged that growing crops to make fuels like bioethanol and biodiesel was hugely controversial as it often entailed laying waste to pristine natural habitats or utilising land that might otherwise be used for food production or housing.

In a report on the sustainability of liquid biofuels, it stated that the fuels should be “in the first instance those derived from wastes and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues”, but they “might include converting waste cooking oil, municipal solid waste, the dregs from whisky manufacture or even fatbergs - the bane of sewer management companies - into useful fuel”.

The RAEng also called for beefed-up regulation to help avoid unintended market distortions within the UK and internationally, protect workers, guard against fraud and prevent abuses in the supply chain.

Biofuels have been used since the early days of the automotive industry. Rudolf Diesel tested his first engine on peanut oil, and researchers at the University of Bath recently investigated whether waste coffee grinds could be used to make biodiesel.

To meet European Union targets, fuel suppliers are already blending biofuels into the petrol and diesel used in our road vehicles up to a level of 4.75 per cent, and the RAEng has called for the government to ensure robust certification of biofuel supply chains is maintained when the UK leaves the EU.

Professor Adisa Azapagic, chair of the Academy’s working group on biofuels, said: “Second generation biofuels offer real prospects for the UK to make progress in reducing emissions from transport, particularly in sectors like aviation where liquid fuels are really the only option for the foreseeable future. Our report shows that, with the right safeguards and monitoring, biofuels from waste in particular are well worth pursuing from a sustainability point of view and also provide business opportunities for development.”

In a press release sent out to coincide with today's report, the Academy stated: “Growing energy crops is also recommended, particularly where it can be done on marginal land that is unsuitable for food production, housing or has been degraded through deforestation. These sources of biofuel can most effectively avoid the risk of land use change and more generally make use of biomass and land areas that would otherwise have little or no value.”

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