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Fri 18 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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Alternative lifestyle

PMV meets Yousif Lootah and his team of biodiesel pioneers.

Alternative lifestyle
Youssif Lootah.

PMV is late to the interview with Yousif Lootah and the
traffic isn’t helping. The exit off Dubai’s
Al Ittihad Road
is clogged and we’re facing ten minutes of frustration and danger in the slow
lane, and annoyingly, the only thing moving is the clock display on the
dashboard.

The problem it transpires as we crawl forward is a knuckle
of construction activity around the new Al Anz Metro station that is extending
a green finger of the line into that part of the city.

Before leaving the office that morning, news had come in
that Mohammed Obaid Al Mulla, CEO of the Roads Transport Authority (RTA), had
told the second International Transport Conference and Exhibition for the Middle
East that Dubai
had slashed the cost of time wasted in traffic congestion in the municipality
from $1.6 billion in 2007 to $1.1 billion in 2009.

On the Al Ittihad road – for a few minutes at least – it is
difficult to know which Dubai
he was talking about.

Al Mulla was at the conference to talk about the
municipality’s plans to complete its rail and tram network by 2020 and take the
burden of 30% of journeys.

The disruption around Al Anz will be nothing when the
construction of a 318km-long rail line and a 270km tram line really kick in,
but civil works disruption is not the only reason Al Mulla’s speech has added
relevance today. In his address he made a lot of the progress being made in
greening the roads of Dubai, including hybrid
engine vehicles in Dubai’s
taxi fleet and new buses powered by Euro-4 compliant engines. The private
sector, including pioneering companies like SS Lootah, is going to be a vital
partner if it is going to achieve its 2020 aspirations.

SS Lootah’s own Green Car Program has made good progress
since its inception; starting with the conversion of part of the company’s
fleet to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), followed by the use of hybrid and
electric cars in recent years. The company’s efforts to promote sustainable
transportation have earned it some coveted awards including the RTA’s Dubai
Award for Sustainable Transport (DAST) in the conservation of environment
category. Its latest initiative is the topic of our interview, a recycling
scheme that takes used cooking oil from the city’s restaurants and recycles it
as a blended cocktail with diesel, otherwise known as biodiesel.

The multifaceted approach of SS Lootah is pioneering a
green-print for private companies that takes sustainable transportation and
vehicle operation quite a few steps further than the RTA’s attempts so far, and
worthy of a today’s discussion.

From the off, Lootah explains that the company, which
started in 1957, first in construction before diversifing into many other areas
(86 individual companies form the group today), has a tradition of being at the
leading edge of progress in the UAE.

“We opened the Dubai Islamic Bank, the first Islamic bank in
the world,” he begins. “And the Dubai
Medical College
for Girls, the first further education institution of its kind. Also Al Islami
the first halal food producer in the UAE.”

“We take our lead with our green initiatives from my father
who first came up with so many ideas and founded our corporate social
responsibility (CSR) programme. We started with the CNG scheme and followed
that with the electric hybrid car programme. We have launched a solar-powered
fishing yard, and with this scheme our Ready Mix trucks now have biodiesel.”

While he may follow the ideals of his visionary father and Dubai’s leadership (“we
are in line with the UAE’s vision for sustainable development and sustainable
energy.”), Yousif Saeed Lootah is proving to be a leader in his own right.

Lootah has spent the last
two years harding work in a determined effort to turn the growing environmental

awareness of UAE into a
practical initiative with tangible economic and environmental benefits, first
for his company, then the wider community.

In the briefing for the PR for interview his advisor
described him as a young and energetic director. In person he is direct and
purposeful, and it is easy to see how he has become the defacto brain and
leader behind the many sustainable initiatives the company is
currently juggling.

Lootah explains that the biodisel plan was the product of a
company- and fleet-wide testing of emissions.

“It was part of our Green Car Program, the CSR initiative,”
he explains. “During this period we realised that the major reduction of emissions could be in the fleet
of diesel trucks we have in our Ready Mix unit (located in Al Quoz).”

Following this revelation potential schemes and data with
biodiesel blends identified as a possible answer.

Biodiesel is a renewable fuel alternative to traditional
petroleum-based diesel fuel. It can be used as blends in along with normal diesel.
There is no also modification required for the engines up to 5% biodiesel (B5)
use.

As discussed in previous issues of PMV, the biodiesel
industry has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the past couple of years. It has
proven to be a pricey commodity and the industry has faced criticism over its
dependency on the same edible oils that feed the planet’s population.

If those hurdles weren’t large enough, the Middle
East has a plentiful and cheap supply of oilfields and not much in
the way of palm plantations.

Unsurprisingly, very early on Lootah and his team identifyed
a lack of availability and supply of raw material (feedstock) was going to be a
major bottle neck in adopting this practice in Dubai.

In June 2010 he began a global journey to projects in Europe,
Asia, India:  “especially to see biodiesel in action” and
to see how, if it was possible, it was going to work.

“During my travels I built up contacts and friendships and
saw how biodiesel plants actually worked.”

Exhibiting that he really did learn his lesson from his
European studies he asks: “You come from the UK, right? Well there I know you’ve
got this mandate of 10% blends coming in.”

After a brief exchange his mentioning the UK prompts him
to recall a story.

“I have a friend from the UK that told me that although
people say it is about being green  but
it is also about the cost of the diesel.” He says. “His brother started going
into the market for used cooking oil and used it in their old car for a year.”

He laughs. “The engine was completely damaged!

His education in energy has clearly been well spent and he
quickly rattles through other options other than biodiesel open to the GCC when
it comes to its alternative energy options.

“The idea for us is always to come up with things that are viable.
In Dubai,
electric cars are viable but where do you get the energy from?” he asks. “The
are some things that are not viable. If you say wind energy in Dubai, you can say it’s nice but that’s as
far as

it goes.”

Chuckling he then adds: “Now if you say solar
energy....solar. There’s no problem because we have the sun all year round! It
can be viable commercially. We would also like to think that biodiesel can also
be viable.”

Soon after returning from Europe,
he recruited a team of passionate employees from various divisions of SS Lootah
Group and has since been working hands-on along with the team from conception
to full implementation.

The next stage was for the group’s engineers to conduct
tests on biodiesel. He says that their findings proved that there was a 10%
reduction in particulate content and 2.5% reduction in Green House Gas (GHG) in
all the vehicle emissions when a blend of just 5% (B5) is used. “Our engineers
have shown us we can use biodiesel with 5% blend without any engine modifications.
So, it  really can work here too.”

There was still the issue of feedstock to surmount but it
was realised that the company had the answer in front of them all the time.
Used cooking oil from its own companies.

“We suddenly saw an opportunity to recycle one of the wastes
produced in Dubai
to an environment friendly fuel,” he says.

Lootah estimates that there is potentially 1,000 tonnes of
used cooking oil produced in Dubai
per month. “This is what I mean by viable,” he says.

“We have individuals from our group that are recycling.
Lootah has 86 companies and they can all contribute.”

The start was relatively modest, with Lootah providing a drum for recyling and
set up an awards programme to encourage people. The programme’s leader says
that he has been pleased with the results.

“We get this oil free!” He enthuses.

The success of the pilot project has encouraged SS Lootah to
deploy more recycling units in buildings, colleges and schools that belong to
group, he explains. One of the most crucial and recent has been a tie-in with
sister company Al Islami Foods.

“They have offered their full support in the initiative and
we have deployed a recycling unit at Al Islami headquarters [30% percent of the
overall contributions come from the company},” he explains.

While support from the group’s other constituents has been
important for the nascent  scheme,
getting help from the wider community will be vital if it’s to match Lootah’s
ambition of biodiesel being used on a larger scale.

It has already secured used cooking oil from local
consolidators (approved by Dubai
Municipality, he adds),
but the company wants to collaborate even closer. There are plans in the next
stage to offerwaste oil management for
other companies.

“We are confident that by collaborating with various
agencies and companies we would be able to take this initiative to the next
level. We have proven that we will be able to switch to a 5% blend of
alternative fuel for the
diesels engines of heavy vehicles without any major investment in the fleet.

By undertaking this project Lootah believes that the group
is gaining leadership in an alternative fuel switch in the region. He adds”:
“We also wanted to prove a point that within the resources available in Dubai, it was very much
possible, working in collaboration with all the stakeholders, and reduce the
carbon footprint.”

“Once biodiesel is made available, this could be used in all
the diesel engines without any engine modification. Such a change in the entire heavy vehicle
fleet in Dubai
or UAE has huge implications in the reduction of carbon emissions and
particulate matter that cause pollution and global warming.

“There so many things we waste here like plastics and paper.
We want to show that doesn’t have to be the way with
biodiesel and cooking oil. We may only be a demo but we’re successful and a
viable one. It takes time. You can’t just click your fingers and make people
buy it.”

Down on the plant

Following our meeting, PMV is guided to the biodiesel plant
in the Al Quoz district. The facility use to double as both a cement plant and
SS Lootah’s Material Lab. Now it is also home to its biodiesel plant.

The plant itself is housed in an annex of the plant. Used
oil is deposited through a discrete hole in the wall before being drawn into a
series of tanks that separate
unwanted elements until the chemical ethyl esther is ready to be blended into
diesel.

The man in charge of both the Material Lab and the biodiesel
plant operation, Reji Nair, explains that the facility can produce 1,000l per
day. While we talk he hands over a dark bar into my palm. “We also get glycerol
as a by-product. It’s the best soap you can get!”

“This is only the start,” PMV is told. “We can scale up the
operation we have here. At present we’re just testing the model with Ready Mix,
learning how it fits into the area.

It’s nothing new but we’re gaining the supply chain
knowledge. Who is holding the oil, how to acquire it and how to satisfy the guy
who is holding it with the right price. All these things we’re only just
begining to learn.”

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