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Alternative lifestyle

PMV's Big Interview with Yousif Lootah

Lootah's fleet of Ready Mix trucks have shown they can be fueled by B5 biodiesel.
Lootah's fleet of Ready Mix trucks have shown they can be fueled by B5 biodiesel.
Refining tanks (above); Biobot, SS Lootah could sell the kit for biodiesel made at home (above right); In the laboratory (bottom).
Refining tanks (above); Biobot, SS Lootah could sell the kit for biodiesel made at home (above right); In the laboratory (bottom).

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.”

Lack of energy
SS lootah is not the first company to attempt to introduce biodiesel into the UAE market. In 2008, venture capital fund Alf Yad announced its investment in a company, Embio, which was planning to become the first commercial producer of biodiesel in the GCC.

With funding secure, Embio’s managing partner, Karim Aly, said the plant would begin output in 2009 and market the “environmentally-friendly” fuel at a wholesale level to the construction industry.

Embio’s managing partner, Karim Aly, said the plant would begin output in 2009 and market the “environmentally-friendly” fuel at a wholesale level to the construction industry.

“Contractors are one of the heaviest consumers of diesel fuel which means the infrastructural growth we’re seeing in the UAE is fueled by diesel,” he said. “What we would do is displace some of those diesel fuels in favour of bio-diesel blends which in turn will reduce the ecological footprint on the nation and the globe.”

EmBio’s bold plan involved producing a B20 fuel blend, a mixture of 80% petroleum diesel and 20% biodiesel, which would be produced from inedible crops in arid land.

Despite the funding, nearly three years down the line the EmBio plant is yet to have moved off the drawing board.

Abu Dhabi feeLinG electric
US company DesignLine Corporation has awarded Liberty Automobiles with the exclusive right to sell its range of electric and hybrid buses in the UAE. The company claims its the “first and only manufacturer whose 100 % electric, zero-emission buses are in daily operation”. These buses run up to 160 km on a single charge.

Two 100% electric buses, known as the Eco-Smart I, are already in operation on Yas Island, near Abu Dhabi with the emirate’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC).

With emirates and municipalities setting themselves long term emission and lower energy targets, Liberty will be looking to capitalise on demand for greener alternatives to existing transportation.

“We are delighted to represent DesignLine, a company that is spearheading a revolution in public transportation through electric and hybrid buses,” Sheikh Khalid Bin Abdul Aziz Al Qasimi, chairman of Liberty Investment Company, holding company of Liberty Automobiles, said.

“We share DesignLine’s passion for introducing clean, pollution-free buses, as electric vehicles hold the key to green cities, and recent developments worldwide indicate that governments will increasingly switch to carbon-neutral vehicles sooner than later.”

Duncan Peat, managing director of Liberty Automobiles, added: “In the medium term, we will also explore the potential to manufacture these buses in the UAE as demand from the region is expected to grow.”

Brad Glosson, CEO at DesignLine explained that underneath the buses

“DesignLine electric vehicles are the world’s only zero-emission vehicles that are deployed for daily passenger service, proving that we don’t make just concept buses,” added Glosson. “Our batteries are easy to charge and fully recyclable at the end of their life, and the Drive-train is based on DesignLine’s proven and proprietary system.”

“DesignLine believes there are abundant opportunities for operational expansion in the Middle East, with potential buyers in the region showing keen interest in our electric and hybrid bus technology. Through the expertise of an award-winning dealership like Liberty Automobiles, we are confident of making new inroads into the promising Middle East markets,” said Glosson.

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