In any case, when I mentioned that it didn't seem to be running yet, I wasn't trying to run it down. This process is great on at least two levels: Waste reduction and energy self-sufficiency. Just being able to feed plastics into it and get oil back without adding more energy than you recover is amazing.
Posted on Wed, Apr. 16, 2003
Firm says it can create oil from waste products
By Tom Avril
Inquirer Staff Writer
Attention, Middle East oil barons! Some scientists toiling away in a South Philadelphia warehouse say they can give you fits. Their secret:
Turkey guts and old tires.
Those unwanted items, as well as plastics and anything else made of carbon and hydrogen, can be turned into oil. The scientists claim that the stuff is generally cleaner than what comes out of the ground, and that it would sharply reduce our dependence on foreign oil producers.
Don't believe it?
Neither does anyone else - at first.
"No variation," said Terry N. Adams, chief technology officer of Changing World Technologies Inc. "The initial reaction of everybody is skepticism."
Officials from the Long Island company demonstrated part of the waste-to-oil process yesterday at the Philadelphia Naval Business Center in a pilot plant built three years ago.
A full-scale plant is scheduled to go into operation later this month in Carthage, Mo. That $20 million plant will use the waste from a nearby turkey-processing plant owned by ConAgra Foods Inc., which formed a joint venture with Changing World to develop the technology.
Up to 200 tons a day of feathers, gristle, bones and fat will go in one end. Oil, similar to the stuff sold to heat homes, will come out the other.
The process is called "thermal depolymerization" - essentially heating the waste products in a low-oxygen environment so they break down into hydrocarbons without burning.
The concept has been around for decades, but no one has been able to do it cheaply enough to compete with drilling for oil.
Brian Appel, Changing World's chief executive officer, said the company's production costs were now $15 a barrel, not counting capital costs, compared with $5 to $13 a barrel for drilling for oil the old-fashioned way.
Appel said that, with the opening of additional plants, his costs would come down to near $5 a barrel.
Not everyone believes him, but plenty do. Based partly on the success of the Philadelphia plant, the venture received $14.5 million in federal grants to help build four more, including the one in Missouri.
The others also would be situated next to ConAgra facilities: Alabama (using leftover chicken parts), Nevada (onion husks), and Colorado (turkey waste). The grants are from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The City of Philadelphia also gave the company a $50,000 contract to study how to turn the city's sewage sludge into oil.
Scientists who have tried depolymerization in the past were intrigued by the company's claims, but said they would reserve judgment until they could see technical documentation.
"I would, of course, be skeptical until I could better understand what was going on," said Robert C. Brown, an engineering professor and head of the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies at Iowa State University.
Brown questioned whether the process required too much energy to heat the turkey guts and other raw materials, which are mixed with water and made into a slurry for processing.
He also questioned whether the raw materials would always be obtained so cheaply. For now, the company is counting on being paid to take old tires and other unwanted wastes.
"Once they're producing something as valuable as they say they are, people aren't going to give away dead chickens to them anymore," Brown said.
Ted Aulich, a University of North Dakota chemist who has researched a similar process for the plastics industry, said it might be economical but only in situations where a ready stream of waste were available.
"It's going to be a niche-type thing to start," Aulich said.
New government policies could work in favor of the venture. Just yesterday, for example, the Bush administration announced tougher rules for diesel emissions, requiring bulldozers and tractors to burn low-sulfur fuel. Changing World's oil is far lower in sulfur than what typically comes out of the ground.
Another boost could come from the growing concern over "mad cow" disease. Animal wastes have typically been ground up and sold as feed, but some have blamed that process for spreading the disease.
Acknowledging that turkey guts are not normally what comes to mind with South Philadelphia, Appel explained why the company chose the site for its research and development.
Kvaerner ASA was already there building the new shipyard, and was able to build a warehouse for Changing World at low cost. City officials also helped cut through environmental regulations and other red tape to lure the company, he said. In addition, the company secured a favorable lease on the property from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
"We've been embraced by the people of this city," Appel said.
If he finds a way to turn its sewage into oil, the city may embrace him even more.