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Fry the friendly skies: Airports hope it's sustainable to convert used cooking oil into jet fuel

Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is taking used oil, some of it from McDonald’s restaurants in the airport, and converting it into airliner energy.
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Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is among the first major hubs to convert yesterday’s french fries to tomorrow’s jet fuel, in a supersize effort to boost sustainable energy efforts.

Used cooking oil, such as the greasy goodness coming from fryers at the DFW McDonald's restaurants, is being repurposed and converted to fuel in a surprisingly efficient manner, airport officials said.

"If you are Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and you have a fryer in your restaurant — you're recycling oil," DFW McDonald's franchisee Chalmer McWilliams said.

"When it's no longer at the quality to make those great fries and we can repurpose it, why wouldn't you do that?"

Pratik Chandhoke, the technical services manager for sustainable aviation fuel at Houston-based Neste US Inc., said the chemical compositions of cooking oil and jet fuel aren't too far off.

The company strains out leftover fries and McNuggets, heats the oil and adds hydrogen — among other steps — to convert it to jet fuel.

"If you look at any oil, they all have these building molecules, hydrocarbons. We can take those atoms, and we then do some processing magic in our refineries, and we actually mimic the chemistry of a jet fuel," said Chandhoke, who insisted that fryer-based fuel is exactly the same as all other petroleum fuels going into jets across America today.

"There's no difference. It's the same jet fuel that you are using right now."

San Francisco International Airport said it's committed to phasing out fossil jet fuel by 2050.

At DFW, about 32,000 pounds of cooking oil is recycled every month to be converted to sustainable aviation fuel, known in the industry as SAF.

The cooking-to-jet-fuel conversion rate is efficient, according to Neste, with 1 gallon of recycled cooking oil amounting to about three-quarters of a gallon of SAF.

The big drawback for now is the high cost of producing the recycled fuel, as the price of SAF is two to six times higher than traditional jet fuel.

But DFW officials said that as more airports covert cooking oil to jet fuel, the prices will bottom out.

“We already believe we have the infrastructure setup. We have fuel distribution systems,” DFW’s vice president of environmental affairs, Robert Horton, told NBC Dallas. “If we can get continuous supply at the right economic rates, we have a drop-in solution that can be applied right here.”