HK entrepreneurs turning cruisers into vegetarians

May 16, 2012
Yacht people

A pair of former investment bankers based in Hong Kong has launched a new business that aims to persuade owners of diesel-powered pleasure boats, of which there are plenty in local waters, to run their craft on waste vegetable oil (WVO). And, like all good sustainable business ventures, this one looks capable of making a healthy profit while also helping the environment.

The idea of running a diesel engine on vegetable oil is not new – inventor Rudolf Diesel having demonstrated one of his eponymous motors fueled by peanut oil at the 1900 Paris Exhibition – but neither is it commonplace, especially in Asia. In the intervening century or so the idea has been largely ignored because of the prevalence of low-cost petroleum diesel oil.

In 2012, however, the price of diesel is anything but cheap in Hong Kong – the current pump price including tax being HKD12.02 (USD1.54) a liter – which impelled TnT Recycling co-founders Hank Terrebrood and Shing Tam to start looking around for alternative fuel sources for their boats.

The pair are keen on game fishing which, given the near collapse of fish stocks in Hong Kong waters, entails cruising going up to 100 miles offshore. Terrebrood's boat, Reel Affinity, has an 850-US gallon (3,218 liter) fuel tank so every time he filled up it was costing nearly HKD40,000 (USD5,128) which is not chump change, even for an investment banker.

“My boat has a pair of diesel engines made by MAN and it turns out they started trying out the use of vegetable oil as fuel back in the mid-90s. So there's a fairly long track record for this in Europe, and its gaining increasing acceptance in the US, particularly among commercial fishing boat operators,” he said.


The conversion work needed to run a diesel engine on vegetable oil is not that complicated. In fact, strictly speaking, there's no change to the engine at all since the modification is to the fuel system.

TnT Recycling's conversion entails adding an auxiliary fuel tank to the boat, which holds a smaller amount of conventional diesel oil that gets used for the engine start-up and shutdown phases. A heating coil, which draws heat from the engine, is installed in the main fuel tank to bring the vegetable oil up to a operating temperature of around 80-centigrade, reducing its viscosity. And a fuel pump and 2-micron filter are fitted between the main tank and the engine’s fuel injectors.

“When the system is up to temperature, it is simply a matter of flipping a switch that activates a solenoid to cut over from the supplying the engine with diesel oil to supplying it with vegetable oil. From there it is plain sailing. We switch back to diesel at the end of the trip to flush the system, which avoids vegetable oil congealing in the fuel injectors,” said Tam.

The company has started collecting used cooking oil from Hong Kong restaurants and has established a processing center where it is put through a process of heating and centrifugal-filtering to eliminate any water content and particulate matter. Terrebrood says this locally sourced WVO is pretty clean so process yields are high but, in the longer term, TNT Recycling may well import waste cooking oil in bulk from China.

Although about 10,000 liters of used cooking oil is produced every day in Hong Kong, it is estimated that only about 10 percent is being collected for recycling with the rest going down the drain or into landfills.

“The established bio-diesel plant and the new one being built (in Hong Kong) already have contracts with the largest producer of waste oil so, although we want to help increase the amount that gets recycled, it will take time to build up a network of sources. In the meantime importing used waste oil from China is a viable option, especially now that there’s a crackdown on putting the stuff back into the food supply chain,” said Terrebrood.