DUBAI: If you eat at McDonald’s or buy Nestle products in the UAE, there’s a good chance that product you’re consuming was transported using 100% “biodiesel”. That’s fuel from used cooking oil. They’re collected every day from restaurants (McDonalds shops, hotel kitchens) and reprocessed in a Dubai facility that runs 24/7 in order to power hundreds of diesel trucks in the UAE with what is sometimes called “McDiesel”.
Now, ships and barges used to service offshore oil fields in the country are using them, too. For the last 10 years, this industry has quietly grown 1,000% — right here in the middle of the fossil fuel production and trade. From Dubai, it has also reached other shores, including India and Bahrain, with seven other countries lined up.
1,000% growth: How did they do it?
Just look some interesting numbers: In 2010, Neutral Fuels started converting 50 litres of used cooking oil with one employee in a small plant. Now, they’re producing up to 1.5 million litres a month in 4 locations. In the UAE (with facilities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi), the company is producing over a million litres a month. “Around the region, it’s going to be more than double that,” Karl W Feilder, CEO and Chairman of Neutral Group, told Gulf News.
Using biodiesel as a vehicle fuel increases energy security, improves air quality and the environment, and provides safety benefits, according to the US Department of Energy.
Neutral Group owns Neutral Fuels, which was incubated in Dubai in 2010. From one employee, they now have more than 100 people. From one location, there are currently have four factories. Feilder reckons they’re going to hit 10 locations by the end of 2021, including one in South Africa, and several more planned in Asia.
It’s one of the few companies that gave a staff bonus during the COVID-19 pandemic — one in April and another in September. “It’s our way of saying ‘Thank You’ to our hard working people,” said Feilder.
“We’re not producing enough… and that’s a good problem to have,” says Feilder (we later visited their processing facility at Dubai Industrial Park). “In India, there’s so much demand we can’t keep up with it.”
A serial tech entrepreneur, Feilder’s foray into the biodiesel industry has been a deliberate act following his early exit from rock music as a teen-ager (though he’s back to the music scene, with Dubai-based group Sandstorm classic rock group launching a COVID-inspired CD collection later this month).
An engineer, Feilder has created a highly-innovative strategy to turn waste oil into reusable energy. “In order for us to face the challenges we have now, we have to use both halves of our brain. I’m a great fan of trying to make everybody realize that this challenge we have is both a serious challenge and something we can overcome.”
His technology is actually inspired by the technique developed by Rudolph Diesel himself, the German inventor of the diesel engine (whose first machine was run on peanut oil). The results of Neutral’s 10 years of labour: over 14 million tonnes of CO2 savings.
Today, Neutral Fuels works with global corporations. In addition to McDonalds, his biofuels also power the trucks of Del Monte, IKEA, Emirates, GEMS (schools) and more than a dozen sea-going vessels owned by Adnoc, among the world’s top oil and gas companies.
Feilder is a serial entrepreneur. Among the renewable energy sector, Feilder is considered a pioneer, whose vision has resulted in something quite tangible. Has previously built five companies (including one which he sold to Microsoft) to exit via trade sale. He had taken two more companies to their Initial Public Offering (IPO).
The Neutral Group emerged from a two-person start-up to an international business today. He is preparing Neutral Fuels LLC, a subsidiary producing bio-fuel from used cooking oil, for an IPO on the London AIM stock market in 2024.
Meanwhile, Feilder is building another subsidiary Neutral Assets LLC into an “Internet of Things” asset management company. Neutral Fuels has introduced a number of innovations (he’s applying for three patents). Its operations are highly digitised: every truck driver has a tap card, so no cash is involved. This facilitates real-time billing, accounting, and monitoring of delivery vehicles. All their trucks are connected to the internet. As the regional expert on biofuels and their adoption in the Middle East, Feilder has also won many regional and international awards in recognition of their pioneering work.
At home in Dubai
Feilder, a Brit, moved with his family to Dubai in 2009, and has conducted business in 46 countries, and has established subsidiaries in over 20. He describes Dubai as his “home”, with his active business interests spanning South Africa, the UK, US, India, New Zealand, and the GCC.
He currently mentors start-ups across industry, and was the first Adjunct Lecturer at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi. He has worked as a Catalyst at Hult International Business School in both Dubai and San Francisco. Karl holds a B.Eng. (Hons.) in Industrial Engineering, an executive MBA. He’s launching a book on business in December.
“Our intern scheme shows new graduates how they can transfer their educational knowledge into reality. We are proud to be actively contributing towards the Dubai government’s clean energy strategy and building a sustainable future for the generations to come. “I’m not an environmentalist,” said Feilder. “I just want us to save the planet.”