Zhenhai Refining and Chemical, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned oil and gas company Sinopec, is planning to construct a 100,000-tonnes/year used cooking oil (UCO)-to-biofuel plant in eastern China.

To be located in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, the plant would eventually produce 30,000 tonnes of aviation-grade biofuel for long-haul international flights, the CNBC news channel reported.

Sinopec, China’s largest oil company, launched its biofuels programme in 2011 as a countermeasure to a proposed EU carbon tariff on civil aviation.

It subsequently produced sample batches of aviation biofuels in 2012 and flew its first commercial flight using a 50/50 blend of biofuel and fossil jet fuel in March 2015.

Huang Zhongwen, spokesman for Zhenhai Refining and Chemical, told South China Morning Post that the 2015 flight was “just for show”, but the new plant would mean “long-term business”.

According to Huang, the facility’s design was near completion and other preparations were proceeding on schedule.

“We have confidence about breaking ground in 2018. Output will meet the annual demand of certain long-distance flights,” he said.

CNBC quoted Boeing data saying more than 1,500 passenger flight had been flown since 2011, but all had been for demonstration purposes only.

UCO poses an additional challenge for production, professor Li Xuebing from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology told CNBC.

“The barrels come in with all kinds of stuff, [like] vegetable oil, animal fat, various proteins, salt and pepper,” Li said.

He added that “sophisticated technologies” had been developed to filter out the unwanted elements from the oil and that heating the UCO to over 350°C removed water molecules that could damage jet engines.

However, sourcing feedstock for the fuel production might prove an issue, as although China produced more than five million tonnes of UCO annually, most of it was drained into sewers or sold to underground rings selling used oil back to less-than-scrupulous restaurants as cheap “gutter oil”, reported CNBC.