Burning at Both Ends
Used oil as usable fuel
By Terri Marshall
Holland America Princess

aste oil need not go to waste. By definition, then, it’s not a waste product but a useful material.

“Technically, we don’t like to call it waste oil,” says David Shaw of Nenana Heating Services Inc. “Used oil is the preferred term.”

Nenana Heating Services is the exclusive Alaska dealer of Clean Burn furnaces and boilers powered by used oil. The company also sells recycling rigs that hold 250 gallons per unit. “The crank oil that comes out of an engine is cleaned and converted to be used as heating oil,” Shaw says.

Normal use of oil—such as for lubrication of vehicles, lawnmowers, or other machines—leads to impurities such as chemicals, dirt, metal scraps, or water. Once oil is mixed with these impurities, it eventually loses its effectiveness, so the oil must be replaced.

While oil attracts impurities with prolonged use, the hydrocarbon molecules never wear out, which means it still contains energy. The process of recycling used oil includes de-asphalting, distillation, filtering, and water extraction. Once this process is completed, used oil can be reused as lubricant, turned into hydraulic fluid, or polymerized as plastic.

Or it can be combusted as fuel in heaters or engines.

“As a state distributor for Clean Burn for almost forty years, I firmly believe (from what I’ve seen) they have mastered this… They’ve got the best units out there.”
David Shaw
President, Nenana Heating Services Inc.
From Kitchen to Coach
In search of new ways to decrease emissions from tour buses that carry cruise ship passengers ashore in Juneau, Holland America Princess began using biodiesel made from cooking oil discarded by local restaurants. Used restaurant oil is one of the ingredients for biodiesel, mixed about 10 percent with virgin diesel.

Carnival Corporation’s shore-side operations for Holland America Line and Princess Cruises in Alaska involve an extensive fleet—not just the luxury liners at sea but motorcoaches on the roads. In 2018, Carnival Corporation and its brands began pioneering fuel technologies in an effort to be better neighbors in communities where cruise ships make port calls. Not only can biodiesel reduce pollution emissions, but it diverts waste oil that would otherwise be managed locally.

Unfortunately, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, local restaurants experienced a significant reduction in customers. Cruise ships were absent for 2020 and 2021, too, but the return to business in 2022 demanded a new supply of used cooking oil.

Bill Hagevig of Juneau, the Alaska and Yukon division manager of Holland America Princess, worked with a local supplier to devise an alternative. Hagevig’s idea was to tap into the used cooking oil from the company’s own ships to power a motorcoach.

Kitchens on board Discovery Princess were modified to isolate cooking oil for use as biofuel. The process required developing proper offloading procedures in Juneau’s port, testing the oil, and working with a biodiesel supply company.

“This is more about doing the right thing for Alaska than anything else,” says Hagevig. “We have tour buses and vehicles that can accept biodiesel, and I am hopeful we can expand that program into each one.”

The program has paused in Juneau since the local partner moved away, but the cruise line is hoping another business will step in.

“This is more about doing the right thing for Alaska than anything else… We have tour buses and vehicles that can accept biodiesel, and I am hopeful we can expand that program into each one.”
Bill Hagevig
Alaska and Yukon Division Manager
Holland America Princess
Clean Conversion
Turning cooking waste into high-performance fuel dates to the 19th century when Rudolf Diesel—the man who gave the diesel engine its name—started experimenting with plant oils. Initially using peanut oil to create an internal combustion engine, he received a patent for an oil-based engine. However, when petroleum-based fuels became readily available and affordable, the use of renewable fuel faded away.

Later, a focus on sustainability increased interest in renewable fuels. The Energy Independence Security Act of 2007 set benchmarks for renewable fuel use in the US, focusing on a goal of reducing reliance on traditional fuel sources. When production levels were established, the renewable fuel market began to explode, peaking in 2011. More cooking oil recycling businesses began operations to help meet demand, and with federal mandates continuing to rise each year, the market will continue to thrive.

In 2010, waste management company Alaska Waste opened Alaska’s first large-scale biodiesel plant. The plant produces 250,000 gallons of biodiesel annually from vegetable oil gathered at local restaurants. Alaska Waste plans to fuel up to 20 percent of its vehicles with biodiesel.

For petroleum-based used oil, interest in recycling dates to the ‘70s energy crisis. During this challenging time, businessman and inventor Ben Smoker developed a way to safely and economically convert used oil into heating oil. Working with a steel company in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Smoker had already patented several energy-related products. His new approach provided a money-saving and eco-friendly disposal option for auto repair shops and other facilities with too much used oil on their hands.

Smoker started Clean Burn, a company that became the market leader in multi-oil furnaces.

The first Clean Burn waste oil furnaces in 1979 marked a refinement of a new technology: waste oil combustion for heat recovery in a self-contained, efficient, and affordable system. Clean Burn offers numerous models ranging from 140,000 to 500,000 British thermal units per hour. The manufacturer’s used-oil boilers are recommended for applications such as car and truck washes, radiant floor heat, space heat, snow and ice melting, and industrial processes.

“As a state distributor for Clean Burn for almost forty years, I firmly believe (from what I’ve seen) they have mastered this,” says Shaw. “They’ve got the best units out there.”

The energy content of 2 gallons of used oil approximately equals the electricity consumed by a typical household for twenty-four hours, or about 36 kWh. By recycling used oil, businesses not only save on disposal and environmental liability costs but also on overall heating expenses.

Handle with Care
Shops generating used lubricating oil that is sent off for recycling are regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Regulations specify, for example, that used oil should not be mixed with other types of waste, especially hazardous waste. This does not apply to household do-it-yourself used oil.

EPA suggests labeling containers and tanks with the words “Used Oil” rather than “Waste Oil” to avoid confusion. Common wastes generally not considered “used oil” include crankcase oil, soaked rags, oil filters that are not drained, spill absorbent material that is dripping with oil, and used transmission or brake fluids.

Used oil will generally be classified as hazardous waste if it is mixed with hazardous waste, or if the total halogens in the oil exceed 1,000 parts per million.

Up to fifty-five gallons of used oil may be transported to a collection center without special permission. Quantities greater than fifty-five gallons must be handled by a registered transporter with an EPA ID number.

“Our biggest market is the asphalt industry… They use it for a heating aggregate when they’re making asphalt.”
Blake Hillis
General Manager
US Ecology Alaska
Process Ecology
“We have a stringent quality control program following the regulations for acceptance to ensure there’s no hazardous waste blended in with the used oil,” explains Blake Hillis, general manager of US Ecology’s Alaska business unit. “We follow this process to ensure the oil is within the EPA regulations.”

US Ecology Alaska, a Republic Services company, offers industrial cleaning services, site remediation, and spill cleanup from offices in Kenai, Anchorage, Palmer, Fairbanks, and North Pole. Alaska’s largest full-service environmental company, it also handles waste processing and disposal.

For used oil, Hillis says, “Our process begins by removing the contaminants. Once that is complete, we do further tests to ensure that the oil meets all the parameters to be sold on the market. When we get to that point, we do some blending into the oil with diesel fuel to get the desired product our customers want to use.”

Rather than tour buses, furnaces, or boilers, the fuel US Ecology produces goes into road building. “Our biggest market is the asphalt industry,” says Hillis. “They use it for a heating aggregate when they’re making asphalt.”

US Ecology also has a state-of-the-art distillation unit that manufactures glycol antifreeze from used products.

Producing a gallon of re-refined base stock requires less energy than refining crude oil. Reusing used oil thus reduces the need for refining new oil from untouched resources. By reheating leftovers, used oil technology extends the life of energy resources.