The grease bubbling in fast food frying vats across America could harbor the future of aviation, according to a new report by the Dallas Morning News’ Kyle Arnold.

On Tuesday Arnold published an examination of promises made by a number of major American air carriers to purchase billions of gallons of sustainable aviation fuel in the coming decade, the foundation of which could consist of everything from cooking grease to wood and other biofuels.

The resulting concoctions could cut down airline carbon footprints by as much as 80 percent once scale can be achieved, the examination determined. So far American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue Southwest and United Airlines have pledged to purchase 3.8 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel in the coming decade in an effort to honor long-term anti-pollution pledges and hedge against the possibility of a federally mandated carbon tax.

American Airlines and Southwest, both Texas-based, have standing pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and have made sustainable airplane fuels (SAF) a major component in their near and mid-term plans for achieving a net-zero carbon footprint. 

The biggest issue facing carriers, however, is the cost and time of producing SAFs compared with traditional fossil fuels. Companies specializing in converting cooking grease to viable carbon-offsetting fuel are not currently capable of creating the volume needed to support the airline industry, and the per-gallon price of creating sustainable aviation fuel hovers between $6 to $7 per gallon—prohibitively expensive compared to a gallon of traditional jet fuels, which typically runs about $3.

One company pioneering SAF conversion is Neste, an oil refining and marketing company based in Finland that’s partnered with “about 200 restaurants” at DFW Airport to harvest used cooking oil for conversion into aviation fuel, according to Arnold. The goal of the partnerships is to forge a system where restaurants frying food can easily transmit grease and oil to facilities for conversion into fuel. 

“The actual piece of how you move the oil from the kitchen to the recycling tank in a different location at the airport had to be systematically worked out,” McDonald’s DFW operator Karen Lopez McWilliams said. “You had to have the right kind of fitting on your fryer for a quick disconnect so that the oil could go into the tank and then you safely move that oil because it’s still hot.”

Neste has been collecting around 32,000 pounds of used cooking oil per month from DFW restaurants, according to Arnold—a noble start but a drop in the bucket in terms of the nearly four billion gallons air carriers have pledged to purchase. It will be years before carriers like Southwest will be able to incorporate mass-produced SAF in their fuel strategy. The Dallas-based airline has inked a deal with sustainable fuel converter Velocys to purchase 219 million gallons of carbon-neutral fuel at a fixed price over the next 15 years.

These transactions won’t begin until 2026 as Velocys builds out a new biorefinery in Mississippi capable of producing such fuels at volume.

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