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This Company Is Betting On Animal Fat And French Fry Oil As The Jet Fuel Of The Future

A jet comes in for landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in this April 15, 2008 file photo. Some planes at LAX already receive a jet fuel mix that includes a small amount of biofuel, and the Paramount refinery that makes it is about to boost production. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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Vegetable oil. Animal fat. Doesn't sound like it could be used for jet fuel, but if you've taken a flight out of LAX recently, your plane may have been partly powered by it.

Biofuel is a hot renewable energy source, and turns out we Angelenos are at the center of it -- the world's first renewable jet fuel refinery (and one of only three renewable diesel plants in the entire country) is in the city of Paramount.

Now that refinery is about to get even bigger.

On Wednesday, World Energy, which owns the plant, announced it's investing another $350 million in biofuel production. Which means more biodiesel fuel available to power commercial -- and yes, military -- airplanes.

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So it's a plane flying on old french fry oil?

Kind of.

It's fuel that comes from food processing -- think non-edible animal fat and agricultural wastes. And because it's not fossil fuel, it creates way fewer carbon emissions -- which means less jet exhaust in the atmosphere polluting our air. Biofuel comes in the form of ethanol, biodiesel and bio jet fuel. World Energy focuses on creating those last two.

That sounds pretty cool. So why haven't I heard much about it before?

Probably because it's still pretty new. LAX became the first airport in the U.S. to start using it in 2016, with United the first airline, mixing it into a blend with conventional fuel.

It's also on the expensive side, although it is becoming competitive with conventional fuel prices. And because it's not so widespread there aren't a lot of incentives to shell out the extra cash to make planes greener.

Any reasons not to like it?

The biggest concern has been that by taking stuff from the food chain, it would drive up food prices. But CEO Gene Gebolys said that's not the case.

"It's a pretty common misnomer, this concept of you're taking feedstocks out of the food supply... We primarily produce animal fats, cooking oils, non edible corn oil," he said. "Your mother would not have suggested that we eat the fat part that we make into fuel."

And they can put it in military jets?

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After some refining, yes. The Navy even has a Great Green Fleet that's all about running their planes on renewable energy like biofuel. World Energy delivered its first jet fuel at the official launch of that program in 2016, for use with conventional fuel.

What does that mean for the people in Paramount who live next door to the refinery?

Paramount has suffered pretty badly from nearby industrial pollution in the past. But this could be good news. The plant is in a former oil refinery that has been there since the 1920s. When World Energy first entered the picture in 2012, with a plan to start biofuel production in 2015, there was concern about workers keeping their jobs. But World Energy Chief Commercial Officer Bryan Sherbacow said when they realized how valuable the employees were, they made sure to keep some of them there.

"We recognized that the workforce here had, on average, 20 years of experience, and experience that translates specifically to our process," he said. "So we raised the money to continue to pay that workforce to stay in place, and we are definitely stronger because of that knowledge and that legacy."

World Energy says in this next phase they expect to hire more workers as well.

Paramount Mayor Diane Martinez said the city's thrilled about the expansion, too. "It's going to decrease greenhouse gas emissions ... lowering pollutants by 70 percent. And it's going to generate more jobs for this community."

Normally refineries would mean worries about emissions, smell and traffic. But Martinez says she hasn't heard of any smell complaints from residents, and in terms of traffic, the company has created pipelines to run to Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles, which lessens the number of trucks coming in and out. And the company says those trucks that do come in are running on clean energy, too.

Plus, it doesn't hurt that all that environmental benefit makes for some nice tax breaks for the city.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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