Over the past 10 years, the four key feedstock sources for production of renewable fuels from triglycerides have been corn, soybeans, canola and meat processing. These primary sources have provided about 18 billion pounds of virgin triglyceride feedstock to the North American renewable fuel industry annually. Most of that feedstock has been consumed for annual production of up to 14 billion pounds of biodiesel. The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program and Low Carbon Fuel Standard are major drivers for this demand in the U.S. market. That demand has decreased slightly over the past five years.

Production of renewable diesel has grown by five times during the same period and now exceeds biodiesel, essentially doubling the triglycerides demand for production of renewable fuels, pushing output to 30 billion pounds annually. Demand is projected to double again as new production capacity for renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel enter service to satisfy clean fuel programs in the U.S. and Canada. Additionally, Canadian canola contributes $29.9 billion to the Canadian economy and supports more than 207,000 jobs. With such a major impact on the economy, creating enough supply to meet the demand is imperative. How does this compare with the available feedstock supplies?


Corn represents the largest available source of triglycerides with approximately 14.5 billion bushels of corn produced annually in the U.S. and Canada. Corn contains approximately 2 pounds of oil per 56-pound bushel, suggesting a potential volume of 29 billion pounds of corn oil could be available for conversion to renewable fuel.

Current consumption of corn oil for use as fuel is limited to 1 pound or less of oil per bushel recovered as a coproduct of ethanol produced by the dry milling process. About 40% of the corn crop is converted to ethanol, producing up to 6.1 billion pounds of distillers corn oil annually. Oil recovery rates are improving and should marginally increase the supply of distillers corn oil over time. More significant increases in supply of distillers corn oil could be expected if alcohol to jet technology, for production of sustainable aviation fuel, shifts corn utilization by increasing the corn grind for ethanol above 40% at the expense of the 60% corn crop currently allocated to livestock production, export and other food or industrial uses.


Soybean production in the U.S. and Canada is approximately 4.8 billion bushels annually. One bushel of soybeans weighs 60 pounds and contains up to 12 pounds of oil. About 50% of soybeans are crushed domestically to produce soybean meal for livestock production, as well as 25 billion pounds of soybean oil. More than 40% of that oil, 11 billion pounds, is used for production of renewable fuels. The remaining 60% of soybean oil is used in food and industrial applications. The other 50% of the domestic soybean crop is exported as whole beans and crushed at the destination to produce meal and oil. New crush capacity under construction in the U.S. is expected to further increase the percentage of soybeans crushed to support growth in oil demand for production of renewable fuels.

Animal Fat

Much of the protein value of the North American corn and soy crop is used to produce 105 billion pounds of beef, pork and poultry for human consumption. Slaughter and processing of animals produces 10 million pounds of triglycerides as rendered animal fats annually. About one-third of these triglycerides have been historically used in the human food chain and in consumer products. Another third goes to animal feed. The final third, or about 3.5 billion pounds, is used as feedstock for renewable fuel.


Canola is the cultivar of rapeseed grown in North America. Canola was developed to produce high-grade oil for use as food. Almost 1 billion bushels of canola are produced each year. One bushel of canola weighs 50 pounds and yields 22.5 pounds of oil when crushed. About 60% of the canola crop is crushed in North America to produce 3.3 billion pounds of oil, as well as canola meal for production of meat and dairy products. Approximately 40% of the crop is exported and crushed at the destination.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a pathway for canola as a feedstock for renewable fuel in 2022. This resulted in about 10% of the North American canola oil production being diverted from food to renewable fuel feedstock. This percentage can be expected to increase as planned new crush capacity in Canada comes online to support production of renewable fuels.

Mixed/Recycled Feedstocks

Lower-quality fats and oils include yellow grease, used cooking oils and other rendered products. These products may contain elevated concentrations of triglyceride degradation, such as free fatty acids, ketones and aldehydes or other materials identified as moisture, insoluble and unsaponifiables. These attributes limit some commercial uses for these mixed/recycled triglycerides but make them particularly attractive as feedstocks for production of renewable fuels due to low carbon intensity as recovered co-products. Mixed/recycled feedstocks also find applications in the animal feed and industrial markets. Demand for mixed/recycled feedstocks is driving collection efforts to increase recovery as a percentage of virgin triglycerides delivered to the North American food industry.

Annual virgin triglyceride production in North America is 40 billion pounds, with more than 50% of those triglycerides distributed to the food processing industry. As much as 80% of that material is recycled as yellow grease and used cooking oil. These lower-quality fats and oils add recycled triglycerides from other domestic sources such as cotton, sunflower and peanut oils but also introduce imported oils including palm and rapeseed into the renewable feedstock pool. Most are minor constituents, but the volume of palm oil is significant as it constitutes 1.5 times the volume of soybean oil and three times the volume of rapeseed oil in the world market for fats and oils. The net result is that the available mixed/recycled triglyceride feedstocks with North American origins exceed 15 billion pounds. Imports of mixed/recycled feedstocks from foreign sources represent significant additional sources of feedstock for production of renewable fuels that may or may not have originated from oil seeds exported from North America.

Feeding the Future of Renewable Diesel and Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Growers, processors and recyclers have collaborated to supply feedstocks for annual production of renewable fuels in North America to grow from 14 billion to 30 billion pounds. Consideration of the total supply of fats and oils indicates that a sufficient supply exists to allow that production to double again, but only at the expense of other beneficial uses. Growth in the production of renewable fuels beyond the current 30 billion pounds per year will require additional production of these feedstocks, diversion of feedstock from other uses, and more efficient recovery and reclamation of mixed/recycled feedstocks in North American and offshore to support that growth. Demand for renewable fuels projects will provide the driving force to continue the growth in the market for fats and oils.


Sustainable benefits can come from development of renewable fuel and chemical capabilities and facilities. 

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published March 5, 2020, and has been updated for context and accuracy.

Tim O’Mara is a process and technology manager at Burns & McDonnell. With more than 35 years of process engineering experience, he focuses on creating effective solutions for the design, construction and operation of process facilities.