Fuel from fatbergs

There’s a whole backlogged bunch of news and issues I want to comment on right now… but I’m coping with some very disruptive conditions at work (more on that in a later post!) so will just quickly discuss this recent ‘good news’ BBC story about generating renewable ‘fuel’ from ‘fatbergs’ found in UK sewers… (if you click their link you can watch their 03:46 video about it).

Update (01/11/17): Found the film on the BBC World Hacks YouTube page, here it is: 

Fatbergs are composed of congealed fat accumulated in sewers, bound up with various other waste items deposited there by citizens/customers, like non-soluble wipes, condoms, nappies (diapers), dental floss, cotton buds, and so on. (Some organisations – including UK water and sewerage utility company, Thames Water – use ‘fatberg’ as an official term when discussing this issue, and when developing strategies to mitigate the repair and maintenance problems caused.)

Thames has been proactive in raising awareness about fatbergs. They’ve created a ‘bin it – don’t block it‘ campaign, e-leaflet, and dedicated website. They have a video about the ‘myth of flushable wipes’, also viewable on YouTube (and I recall being asked whether I flush wet wipes down my loo at a recent Thames Water invited I presented at… clearly it’s a hot topic!):

Back in February of 2017, Thames also put out a corporate press release to launch an engagement campaign with food outlets in their region, based on learning from their 2016 pilot in Oxford (UK):

‘Thames Water is stepping up its fight against fatbergs by launching a campaign to encourage food outlets to effectively manage waste fats, oils and grease.

The campaign will mainly target restaurants and fast food retailers, off the back of shocking research carried out over the last two years in Oxford. Results revealed 95% of food establishments visited were contributing to sewer blockages by having inadequate or no kitchen grease management.

Now Thames Water’s dedicated network protection team will be visiting food outlets in fatberg hotspots to investigate their current grease management and inform them about responsibly disposing of waste fats, oils and grease to help reduce blockages and flooding. …

During the visits, food outlet owners and managers will be provided with leaflets and posters explaining how they can dispose of fats, oils and grease safely and reminded of their legal obligations to avoid putting the wrong things down the drain.’

This press release also noted a 5,000 GBP fine was served to one business owner in Severn Trent’s region (in October 2016). This was for discharging materials to sewer that interfered with it ‘flowing freely’. Given the apparent scale of the UK’s fatberg problem – involving tens if not hundreds of thousands of sewer blockages for water utility companies each year – it’s surprising this was ‘only the second‘ fine ‘of its kind‘. Clearly punitive enforcement around fatbergs is rare.

The BBC story I mentioned above also focused on Severn Trent’s region – and sewers around Birmingham specifically. It highlighted the work by company Argent Energy to produce sustainable/renewal biodiesel fuel from reclaimed and treated fatberg materials. This is done at their site in Ellesmere Port. The BBC’s video states Argent is supplied with about 30 tons per week of sewer ‘mined’ fatberg-related material… And that’s from just one wastewater treatment works in the area!

Returning to Thames they were also in the news, about four years back, exploring making renewable energy from fatbergs:

At the time the BBC ran a story about a ‘bus-sized’ fatberg found in London’s sewers, which you can a bit of here below (not for the squeamish, as with any sewer-related footage!):

A bit of digging around (no pun intended) shows Thames has also now been investigating working with Argent Energy ‘to investigate the possibility of transforming fats, oil and grease (FOG) from its network into environmentally-friendly fuel‘ (this is from a recent WWT story).

All in all, given that the original BBC story states there are ~9,000 UK sewage treatment works it’s good to see innovative partnerships being explored to get renewable energy sources. These plants are now increasingly being viewed as energy-neutral or energy-positive assets by water utility companies. And whether the energy sources come from solid, liquid or gas products or byproducts of treatment processes, the more, the better, in my view!

Note: Featured image by Arne Hendriks from Wikimedia commons

Duncan Thomas


  1. Do you know anyone looking at IoT to sense the fat/wipes and that passing through so that we can track down people dumping fat, wipe and the like so we can prevent the bergs from building up?

    Or is it just easier to try to reduce the waste flowing through / a cost issue on the development, production, and Maintainance of a fatberg detection system?

    1. Hi and thanks for the comment! To the best of my knowledge the approaches adopted by the England and Wales privatised water companies are nowhere near as sophisticated as an ‘internet of things’ approach. It is sometimes obvious that particular restaurants/takeaways are responsible for repeated blockages from fats, oils and greases in specific locations. There was a recent example at the top of Oxford Street in Manchester UK where the sewers had to be cleared multiple times in a short period. I believe there the water and wastewater utility company, United Utilities, will have talked to, and given informational leaflets, to the owners and operators of the places. I don’t think they have the power to levy fines though, in spite of the costs associated with clearing fatbergs and the like. Generally, I think there’s scope for a lot more innovation in this area. There is only so far one can go with passive, hands-off leafleting campaigns and trying to raise awareness through websites highlighting the issue and so on. And it certainly costs a lot of time and resources – and potentially damages sewers themselves when hit pressure jetting is used – to clear fatbergs reactively. Are you aware of any systems in this kind of area? Thanks again for the comment!

  2. Medicare should retrofit toilets with fifty buck automatic bidets. Old folks can’t stand up to do a normal wipe so they or their aides use wipes. And the yuppies wipe the hinds of their dogs and cats. And the super soft toilet papers are just as bad, you can make a quilt with some of them. Drill sargent rubbed my skid marks in my face. You need to mandate passive macerators before homes dump into the sewers. Or supply shards of metal and glass to do the maceration. Quest’s Golobic showed beards have fecal matter spread during bathing. And hemorhoidal mucous leakage causes urinary infections. They need to use catheters that pump water into the gizzard while pumping feces out. Garlic eaters tend to leave messy toilet seats which is why food service workers should be mndated to use bidets. Elvis died of megacolon parsesis from tricyclic antidepressants, which is why Jaanese love him so much and claim to have bigger colons.

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