‘Pioneering The Production Of Clean Fuel From Waste’
Unfortunately, it was being dumped in the desert and destroying nature in the process, but sometimes it was reused in restaurants resulting in carcinogens and thus bad for human health. Maher and I felt that we had to tackle this important challenge.
We started with recycling the waste cooking oil and sending it to Europe to be converted into biodiesel. But as the years went on, we decided that we wanted to take the next step by creating a biofuels ecosystem and keeping the value within the Sultanate of Oman. this is how we came up with the concept of WAKUD to refine and recycle the waste cooking oil here in Oman, so that the nation benefits not only financially and economically, but also in creating jobs, attracting expertise, and supporting decarbonization,making sure that this clean fuel is used in-country.
We started construction of the plant in 2020, and from start to finish, the construction took eight months, right at the height of COVID when it was very difficult to get things done. It was challenging, but somehow we managed to pull this off in less than a year.
I still remember the first batch of biofuel that came out of the factory in 2021. Until today we have some of it bottled and we’ve kept it here in the office as a demonstration of what time, patience and perseverance can lead to.
Driving the future with Oman’s greenest fuel
Omani circular economy start-up Wakud is emblematic of a project that exemplifies Oman’s Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement
Maher Al Habsi
Co-founder and CEO
For CEO Maher bin Mohammed Al Habsi, a feisty entrepreneur and pioneer in waste oil recycling and reuse, recent events have been transformative for the beleaguered company. X2E, a Muscat-based investor with a shared passion for the circular economy and the energy transition, recently acquired a sizable stake in Wakud. But in addition to bringing in generous funding support, X2E has also pledged to make available a slew of leading-edge technological solutions and innovations with the potential to position Wakud on a strong growth trajectory.
At the same time, X2E left the incumbent leadership team intact in a tacit recognition of founder Maher’s caliber and commitment to the growth of this fledgling industry “We have never felt this excited and energetic in a long time,” said Maher exultantly.
“As we speak, we are embarking on a phase of growth that will take us beyond Oman’s borders and into the wider Gulf region and potentially even further.
At the same time, we will be tapping new waste streams and resources as feedstock, creating in the process a wider national ecosystem that will support the growth of Omani-owned SMEs to help with the collection and supply of the feedstock.
The potential for employment generation and livelihood sustenance is significant, in addition to the enormous benefits accruing to the environment and Oman’s Net Zero goals.”
A passionate recycler for the entirety of his professional life, Maher began collecting waste oil in 2005. He recalls: “It was a pretty small market then; recoverable quantities were very modest, but we began with a collection facility in Muscat and later branched out to Salalah. As volumes grew, we shipped them initially to India and Pakistan, until we discovered that the European market, with its strict environmental laws, offered a premium for biodiesel from waste oil and other sources.”
Just as Maher and Talal began work on their dream project, the pandemic hit. But the duo pressed ahead doggedly with the construction of the project at Barka, undeterred by the global lockdowns that hampered the movement of plant equipment and expert personnel to the factory site. Incredibly, and despite the odds, it was completed in eight months – a testament system or the garbage dump, potentially contributing to health and environmental hazards. In the process, restaurants were also encouraged to stop reusing their cooking oil to the detriment of their patrons. Multiple reuses of cooking oil can be cancerous for consumers of that food. That was the initial spark behind our project: Let’s clean-up our country of UCO by recycling it and slowly journey onward towards other decarbonization goals.” to the founding team’s resolve to get their landmark venture off the ground.
The underlying objective is multifold, says Maher. “For one, we saw the potential to convert a waste stream into an environmentally-friendly fuel and thereby earn carbon credits from the project. Another goal was to put in place a sound system for the collection of used cooking oil from hotels, restaurants and other generators, instead of this waste often ending up in the drainage system or the garbage dump, potentially contributing to health and environmental hazards. In the process, restaurants were also encouraged to stop reusing their cook ing oil to the detriment of their patrons. Multiple reuse of cooking oil can be can cerous for consumers of that food. That was the initial spark behind our project: Let’s clean-up our country of UCO by recycling it and slowly journey onward towards other decarbonization goals.”
X2E co-founders Eyhab Al Haj and John Jones
Boding well for recyclers like Wakud are new laws that restrict the export of waste commodities that can be reprocessing into higher value products in support of the growth of a circular economy in Oman. That list includes used lead acid batteries, lead moulds, end-of-life tyres, all types of used oil (industrial, car lubricants, cooking oil,etc.), electronic waste, scrap cans, aluminium, scrap metals, all types of plastic and paper waste, in addition to cardboards. The measure has since unlocked investment opportunities for mainly SMEs eager to tap into this nascent market.
But to Wakud’s misfortune however, significant quantities of waste cooking oil that should have been retained in-country under these regulations, continue to be siphoned out by a handful of bad players, ostensibly by deliberately mis-declaring it as anything but UCO. This leakage is stymieing the efforts of domestic recyclers like Wakud towards achieving the economies of scale necessary to be commercially viable. By offering a higher margin to the waste generators, these shady operators manage to steer sizable volumes of UCO away from the local market and divert them to overseas recyclers. For legitimate recyclers like Wakud, which are vested in the operation of a bio-refinery to world-class standards, the project’s economics preclude the payment of a premium on waste oil as feedstock.
Nevertheless, with Omani SMEs coming into the picture as collectors, there is optimism that the regulatory authorities are rapidly upping their game to detect and crack down on unauthorized outflows of recyclable waste. Moreover, with the Omani government actively championing the growth of a circular the economy around waste, commercially promising waste streams, including UCO, will be covered by better regulatory safeguards designed to ensure they are processed in-country.
Omani nationals account for the majority of the company’s workforce
But with UCO-based feedstock barely enough to cover the bio-refinery’s current capacity of 20,000 tonnes per annum, Wakud is now exploring the feasibility of tapping other types of biomass and bio waste in the production of biodiesel.
“We are working to diversify our feedstock requirements by targeting, for example, fish waste, date seeds and Jetropha seeds, as well as the cultivation of a species of grass that can be harvested for its oil content. In sup port of this strategy, we have signed up with Sultan Qaboos University and the German University of Technology (GUtech) to study the potential for a mix of feedstocks.” Wakud’s bio-refinery at Khazaen Economic City is state-of-the-art, with the main plant machinery coming from UK-based Green Fuels, the world’s leading provider of biodiesel equipment, and a partner in the Oman project.
An onsite lab run by Omanis helps ensure that the waste oil is suitable for processing at the plant. A sample is tested for its free fatty acid (FFA) content and water, among other ingredients. Once it meets the minimum specs, the consignment is brought to the factory where it is left to stand for a couple of days for any water to separate out. The waste oil is then heated to about 65 deg C to separate out its glycerin content a commercially valuable by-product. The remaining feedstock is blended with some quantities of methanol and other chemicals before it is processed into European-standard biodiesel. But in a market awash with relatively cheap conventional diesel, finding corporate buyers – Oil & Gas companies, fleet opera tors, transport and logistics firms, etc – to patronize Wakud’s green fuel has not been easy. With few local offtakers for its environment-friendly product, Wakud has had little choice but to export the bulk of its output to Europe.
Green fuel marketing agreement reached with Oman Oil Marketing Company
In recent months, however, Wakud has made some headway in introducing its bio diesel to the local market, notably through a partnership with leading fuel marketing company Oman Oil Marketing (part of OQ Group). At the same time, a number of leading energy companies and oilfield contractors have begun trialling the use of biodiesel to operate their fleets and heavy machinery. Among the companies that have signed contracts with Wakud are: ARA Petroleum, BP, Alshawamikh Petroleum, OARC Sohar, Sohar Port, Nakheel Oman, Schlumberger, Masirah International Marine and 44.01. State-owned public transport company Mwasalat has also operated a few routes using a blend of biodiesel.
Wakud is also banking on the government to level the playing field for biodiesel producers who find themselves competing with state-subsidized diesel. As a sustainable, low-carbon alternative to emission-intensive fossil-fuel-based diesel, biodiesel should instead benefit from subsidy, and not the other way around, Maher argues.
Discussions with Oman’s authorities, particularly the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Informational Technology, are set to finally pay off, according to the entrepreneur. Following the successful trial operation of a handful of buses on a B20 blend of biodiesel, the Ministry recently announced that the uptake of locally produced biodiesel by state-owned buses will be ramped up over the next seven years through 2030. Other government ministries, including the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Investment Promotion and the Environment Authority are expected to announce measures advocating the use of greener fuels as part of their energy transition strategies.
Wakud Site, 149, Khazaen Economic City Barka OM, 116, Oman
But it is Omani environmental services start-up X2E, with its financial muscle, technological prowess and penchant for innovative, that is poised to take Wakud to the next level. Co-founded by Omani oilfield entrepreneur Eyhab Al Hajj and environmental technologies specialist John Jones, Muscat-headquartered X2E recently acquired a majority stake in Wakud with a commitment to driving its exponential growth.
X2E’s investment has been greeted by Wakud as transformative. “Eyhab and John not only share Wakud’s vision for a low-carbon future but to achieve that vision by leveraging the right technologies cost competitively and sustainably. Thus, in addition to the funding that they bring in, X2E will also give us access to technologies and innovations to drive our business growth. And to their credit as upright and broadminded investors, they have left undisturbed the management team at Wakud, demonstrating their confidence in the company’s leadership.”
As to its ambitions for growth, Wakud has plans to establish a network of biodiesel plants in various parts of Oman and potential in the wider Middle East region in the future. Also envisioned is an international-class laboratory – the first of its kind in Oman – to support the testing of waste commodities for biodiesel production. A local testing and certification lab will do away with the need for local players like Wakud to ship their samples to Europe at a significant cost.
“We are excited about the future of our industry and see the potential for partnerships with universities, researchers and other stakeholders to help unlock value from waste. I’m also grateful that the regulatory authorities in Oman, as well as the stakeholder bodies, are extending all support to our initiatives, particularly in light of the contribution our activities will make to Oman’s Net Zero goal,” Maher added.
- Conrad Prabhu
Dr. Lamya joins Wakud board
Holding a PhD in Structural and Molecular Biology from UCL and an MSc degree in Environmental Science and Technology from UNSW (Australia), Dr. Lamya is an as sociate professor at Sultan Qaboos University, and founder of the speakers’ platform ‘Jalasat Mulhimoon’, which showcased inspiration role models to young Arabs in the region.
During an illustrious career as a researcher and motivational speaker, Dr. Lamya has delivered addresses, speeches, keynote talks and workshops at conferences and associations on science, technology, youth empowerment and leadership. The list of venues includes Harvard, IMD Middle East Alumni conferences and more recently the World Economic Forum in Davos. Recently, she was nominated to be part of the World Economic Forum – Young Global Leader Advisory group after being selected as a ‘Young Global Leader’ by WEF in 2020.
Dr. Lamya has been bestowed with numerous awards and citations throughout her academic career and professional life. In 2020, she was honored by the First Lady of Oman, Her Majesty Sayyida Ahad Bint Abdallah Al Busaidi. Earlier, in 2018, she was presented with the prestigious L’Oréal UNESCO award for women in science (Middle East Fellowship Award and a member of The World Academy of Science – TWAS).