Cooking oil used twice: frying then flying

| 09 Mar 2012 | 11:26

I stumbled bleary-eyed down the gangplank to board the plane that would take me from Amsterdam to Paris, to connect to the plane that would take me home.

I’d been up all night, enjoying the offerings of Amsterdam, riding the giant Ferris wheel, getting harangued by a lingerie-clad prostitute for taking a picture of her silhouetted against her purple-lit window, and eventually grabbing a few Z’s on the church steps at the Occupy Amsterdam protest.

An ungainly sign stood in front of the ticket-taking desk. I almost fell over it. It said: “This KLM Flight uses BioFuel,” and had one of those QVC codes you could take a picture of with your smart phone, if you owned one, which I do not. The flight attendant who welcomes you aboard and makes sure you don’t plop down in an empty first class seat handed me a pamphlet. It was about the biofuel that the plane’s engine would be digesting during this flight. The pamphlet declared me a pioneer of aviation. Your modern day Amelia Earhart. I got to my seat, stuffed the pamphlet in the seatback pocket, and woke up at Paris’ flying saucer-looking airport.

A few days after my return home, it came back to me like a detail from a forgotten dream. One of those words that make you nod knowingly, until you realize you have no idea what it means: biofuel.

Dutch KLM’s website informed me that biofuel is made out of Used Cooking Oil, as if used cooking oil had – through its function as an Ingredient in a new and improved type of Jet Fuel – become prestigious enough to warrant its own proper noun.

The Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft on which I’d been sleeping like a baby was one of the first commercial flights in the world to fly on a mixture of 50 percent conventional jet fuel and 50 percent biofuel. Biofuel apparently has a higher energy content, functions better in cold weather, and emits less carbon dioxide than conventional fuel. (The airline industry is responsible for two to three percent of manmade carbon emissions.) Eventually, KLM thinks it can reduce carbon emissions by half using biofuels.

Biofuel is made out of used vegetable oil picked up from restaurants. In a plant in Louisiana, the oil is hydro-treated and distilled into diesel. The plant, which is a joint venture between a fuel company and food giant Tyson, is capable of making fuel out of anything from seeds of the poisonous, tropical jatropha shrub to porcine fat. Yes, pigs could well fly.

Even though, at $17 per gallon, biofuel is exponentially more expensive than $3-per-gallon conventional fuel, it seems to be catching on. In the month after I took my place alongside the Wright brothers in the history books, Continental, Alaska Airlines and Lufthansa launched biofueled flights.

Still, cash is king, and it may be years — until the price of biofuel drops, or petroleum runs out — before we’re all flying around on Used Cooking Oil like the Boeing 737’s fearless (if sleeping) pioneers of aviation.