From the Sewers: A Waste Cooking Oil to Biodiesel Refinery

William Li
Bartlett School of Architecture, Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London, London
Hong Kong

Project idea

The project is a response to the Whitechapel Fatberg near the site, a mass of solidified cooking waste that clogged up the sewerage system in Whitechapel London. As a rich cultural centre of London, Whitechapel is host to many fry shops producing massive quantities of waste cooking oil. Thus, the project’s function is twofold. It houses a biodiesel refinery system within the architecture that processes new waste cooking oil within fry shops in Whitechapel into biodiesel used for small, motored vehicles. More importantly, the building is an exhibition centre that chronicles the process of refining waste cooking oil into biodiesel, teaching its viewers about the importance of proper oil handling. Thus, it helps to prevent the accumulation of fatbergs by raising awareness on this issue amongst its inhabitants. Situated in an infill site between Ideastore Whitechapel and Albion Yard, the project integrates itself into the urban fabric, steadily unclogging London’s vital arteries.

Project description

The inhabitants meander amongst clusters of industrial pumps and mixing machinery. Their circulation is decided by a series of pipe structures that intertwine with the biodiesel equipment, exposing the audience to its radiating heat and gentle hum.

This project consists of 4 main parts - the Oil Reservoir, the Filtering Spaces, the Mixing Spaces, and the Washing Spaces. The descriptors act as operative words that guide the design language, producing four distinct spaces that have different circulations and atmospheres. The project also takes advantage of the linearity in the narrow site, which lends itself to conveying the idea of a sequential process. Through this, the process of recycling waste cooking is conveyed through the architecture itself rather than through human guided tours. These operative words are derived from important steps within the biodiesel refining process, from filtering the waste oil for particulates to mixing it with methanol and catalyst chemicals at a steady 60 degrees Celsius to the washing with water to extract biodiesel. Restaurants within the vicinity are invited to take their waste cooking oil to the pumping stations on the ground floor that feed the oil into the reservoir. Otherwise, visitors who want the exhibition experience are free to enter from the Ideastore Whitechapel, where they will first enter the Oil Reservoir spaces.

Within the space are vats of waste cooking oil enclosed in rubber insulated glass containers hanging from the ceiling and walls to convey the heaviness and sluggish nature of oil. Various walls have display boards detailing the goal of this project. The users can either meander downwards or walk through the balustrades into the filtering spaces.

The filtering spaces starts with a canopy with concentric slits that filter light. The user then can spiral downwards to view the giant industrial filter through a glass floor. They then walk through an entrance connected to the Ideastore that leads into the Mixing spaces.

The mixing spaces uses spiral staircases and intertwined pipes to create a spiralling circulation, as if the user were the oil, mixed around in the industrial mixers. This allows the architecture to convey how chemicals are mixed in the biodiesel refining process through first-hand experience.

The last stage is the washing spaces. It is made up of several spiralling ramps that wrap around an industrial sprinkler machine that washes the crude biodiesel to prepare it for storage and use in fuelling vehicles. The circulation provides easy viewing access while the machine itself steadily drips water into the biodiesel.

Technical information

The primary building materials in this project are reinforced concrete, steel, and copper. The superstructure of the pipes will consist of concentric circular steel ribs. This is followed with insulation and services in the interior. Both the exterior and interior will then be cladded in 4mm thick rectangular copper panel sheets cut to size and bolted together to create a curve effect. Reinforced steel will also be used in supporting columns and braces for lateral stability. Recycled copper will be used where permissible to reduce the building’s embodied energy and environmental effects.

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