For businesses looking to fill their company gas tanks in China, they may not need to look any further than the back alley of a restaurant. Gutter oil — waste oil from restaurants that is crudely refined and sold back to restaurants for reuse — has plagued China for years. The toxic oil can lead to severe illnesses in those that consume it, and has been linked to higher rates of certain cancersThus, from the smog-filled air to the polluted oil in an entrée, people in China are at risk of literally breathing and eating pollution.

MotionEco, a Chinese startup, aims to recycle gutter oil to produce biofuels in order to decrease both the prevalence of gutter oil in China and the environmental impact of the country’s transportation sector.

The kitchen is the place for fuel

MotionEco, founded by Liu Shutong in 2015, is working to create a distribution channel for the steady production and consumption of gutter-oil-sourced biofuels by groups throughout China. The startup’s distribution model is called the “Sustainable Oil Alliance.”

“The Safe Oil Alliance includes restaurants, collectors, biofuel manufacturers, and biofuel users,” Liu explained while waiting for a flight back to Beijing after a meeting with American partners in San Francisco. “We collectivize this entire biofuel supply chain.” MotionEco uses its alliance to find gutter oil sources to provide oil to biofuel manufacturers, who then convert the waste oil into biofuel to be used by one of MotionEco’s partner organizations. The biofuel that MotionEco helps distribute can be used “anywhere that conventional diesel is used” according to the company’s website.

Currently, the core MotionEco team consists of two people: Liu, who focuses on business partnerships, and COO Robert Earley, who focuses on the policy involved in developing the waste oil biofuel supply chain in China. While the company has staff in Beijing, MotionEco’s pilot projects and partner organizations are located mostly in Shanghai and Nanjing.

MotionEco’s Robert Earley (center left) and Liu Shutong (center right)

What is Biofuel, and what are its benefits?

Biofuels are categorized based on the ingredients used to make them. There are first, second, and third generation biofuels. First generation biofuels can be made from sugar crops (sugarcane, sugarbeet), starch crops (corn, sorghum), oilseed crops (soybean, canola), and animal fats. Second generation biofuels are made from cellulose, which is available from non-food crops and waste biomass such as corn stover, corncobs, straw, wood, and wood byproducts. Third generation biofuels are made using algae as a feedstock.

Biofuels made from waste cooking oil are categorized under second-generation biofuels, since this category also includes food crops that have already fulfilled their purpose as a food source, such as waste vegetable oil.

Used cooking oil and MotionEco’s biofuel

The use of biofuels created from waste cooking oil is said to have a net positive environmental impact. The total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector, globally, was estimated to be roughly 22% in 2013. According to MotionEco and the European Union’s International Sustainability Carbon Certification (ISCC), using biofuels in the transportation sector can cut GHG emissions by up to 90%. As such, MotionEco’s work can result in an increase in food safety as well as a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to decreasing GHG emissions, some of the other benefits associated with using biofuels include waste minimization, improved water quality, and decreased environmental risk. The use of biofuels leads to less municipal solid waste and sewage buildup from congealed grease that might otherwise lead to spills that contaminate bodies of water.

A study by the Department of Energy on the entire life-cycle of biofuels found that for every unit of fossil fuels used to produce biofuels, 3.2 units of energy were gained. More conveniently for consumers hoping to make the switch to biofuel usage, vehicles using traditional diesel engines do not need to undergo expensive conversion technologies to switch from petroleum diesel to biofuel.

Global use of biofuel

In addition to the environmental and health concerns regarding waste oil, issues arising from untreated, excess grease plague cities around the world.

Globally, grease in drains and gutters has been known to result in mind-boggling buildups in sewers, leading to drainage backups. 

In 2013, a 15-ton “fatberg” — a collection of congealed grease — was removed from one London sewer. In New York City, grease causes 71% of sewer backups, according to the city’s 2016 State of the Sewers report. Thankfully, countries and airlines around the world have been working to use biofuels.

In March 2015, Hainan Airlines completed China’s first flight using biofuel in a Boeing 737. The biofuel, created by China’s state-owned oil and gas company Sinopec, was made from a 50-50 mix of gutter oil and conventional jet fuel and flew from Shanghai to Beijing. A total of 156 passengers were on board, including Hainan Airlines’ own Vice President.

On October 29, 2012, the National Research Council of Canada achieved the first ever civil jet to be completely fueled by unblended biofuel made from oilseed crops.  The NRC made the fuel from oilseed crops. In 2016, United Airlines announced plans to use a blend of 30% biofuels and 70% conventional fuels to power flights between Las Angeles and San Francisco, marking the first time a US airline would use renewable fuel for commercial operations. United also has plans to expand this program to all LAX flights in the future.

MotionEco’s “Why”

So why China, and why now for MotionEco? After Liu graduated from VU University Amsterdam with a master’s degree in Environment & Energy Management Studies with a research focus on aviation biofuels, he worked at SkyNRG, which shipped used cooking oil from Asia to the EU to produce biofuels. While living in the Netherlands, Liu learned about his home country’s struggle with gutter oil.

“In my prior job, I used to help ship gutter oil from Asia to Europe to be made into biofuel. But I didn’t think this was necessary,” Liu tells Radii. “Now, I hope that to be able to make [China’s] gutter oil into renewable fuels that can be directly used in China.”

Waste cooking oil (Wikipedia/Dgu163)

Funding and partnerships

Liu’s experience with biofuels in Europe, coupled with projects that his team has been able to accomplish over the past two years, point to the potential of MotionEco and biofuel usage in China.

In their two years of existence, MotionEco has partnered with internationally recognized companies including IKEA and Shell. In 2015, MotionEco partnered with the Shanghai government, Shanghai’s Food and Drug Administration, and Tongji University to create a the “Let the Cooking Oil Fly” program, which powered one hundred Shanghai buses with biofuel.

In late 2016, MotionEco worked with IKEA to implement the use of biofuel in the company’s shipping operations in China. Last year, they also partnered with Shell for the oil conglomerate’s new Make the Future campaign to develop a pilot project for biofuels in Nanjing.

Shell’s Make the Future campaign aims to highlight “the need for greater global collaboration to create more and cleaner energy solutions, by helping to bring to life innovations from six smart energy start-ups.” While Liu says he doesn’t know the exact timeline for this partnership, he tells Radii that MotionEco will at least complete the Nanjing pilot project.

“Shell [is providing] some funding for program costs and we will execute the project in Nanjing. We manage all the specifics of the Shell partnered project,” Liu said. “But Shell also has its own biofuel, or renewable fuel strategy, so we count as one of their pilots.” The group also participated in a funding competition, and won $19,286 from Chivas Venture as one of 30 companies vying for portions of a $1 million prize.

Looking to the future

When asked about the biggest hurdle to his work, Liu spoke of introducing biofuel usage to the public, and about international barriers to creating an expansive biofuel supply chain in China using gutter oil.

“People are not familiar with this topic,” Liu said. “Also, from the point of view of China’s distribution channel, the supply of this oil has been dictated by international and Western parties, so our production chain has been narrowed.” In the future, Liu says that developing their work will require more pilot programs, consumer branding similar to their work with IKEA, and other related programs.

Right now, the company is working with the China Quality Certification Center and other groups to create Chinese standards for biofuel, similar to the EU ISCC standards. The group is basing their work off of internationally recognized biofuel standards.

While China continues to struggle with gutter oil, MotionEco hopes to lift the mental fog from health safety concerns while also lifting the smog from China’s skies.

Cover photo courtesy MotionEco