Skip to comments.Anything into Oil (Change trash & sewage to oil for $15@barrel)
Posted on 08/20/2003 6:34:41 AM PDT by ckilmer
DISCOVER Vol. 24 No. 5 (May 2003) Table of Contents
Anything into Oil Technological savvy could turn 600 million tons of turkey guts and other waste into 4 billion barrels of light Texas crude each year By Brad Lemley Photography by Tony Law
Gory refuse, from a Butterball Turkey plant in Carthage, Missouri, will no longer go to waste. Each day 200 tons of turkey offal will be carted to the first industrial-scale thermal depolymerization plant, recently completed in an adjacent lot, and be transformed into various useful products, including 600 barrels of light oil.
In an industrial park in Philadelphia sits a new machine that can change almost anything into oil. Really. "This is a solution to three of the biggest problems facing mankind," says Brian Appel, chairman and CEO of Changing World Technologies, the company that built this pilot plant and has just completed its first industrial-size installation in Missouri. "This process can deal with the world's waste. It can supplement our dwindling supplies of oil. And it can slow down global warming." Pardon me, says a reporter, shivering in the frigid dawn, but that sounds too good to be true. "Everybody says that," says Appel. He is a tall, affable entrepreneur who has assembled a team of scientists, former government leaders, and deep-pocketed investors to develop and sell what he calls the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP. The process is designed to handle almost any waste product imaginable, including turkey offal, tires, plastic bottles, harbor-dredged muck, old computers, municipal garbage, cornstalks, paper-pulp effluent, infectious medical waste, oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores. According to Appel, waste goes in one end and comes out the other as three products, all valuable and environmentally benign: high-quality oil, clean-burning gas, and purified minerals that can be used as fuels, fertilizers, or specialty chemicals for manufacturing. Unlike other solid-to-liquid-fuel processes such as cornstarch into ethanol, this one will accept almost any carbon-based feedstock. If a 175-pound man fell into one end, he would come out the other end as 38 pounds of oil, 7 pounds of gas, and 7 pounds of minerals, as well as 123 pounds of sterilized water. While no one plans to put people into a thermal depolymerization machine, an intimate human creation could become a prime feedstock. "There is no reason why we can't turn sewage, including human excrement, into a glorious oil," says engineer Terry Adams, a project consultant. So the city of Philadelphia is in discussion with Changing World Technologies to begin doing exactly that. "The potential is unbelievable," says Michael Roberts, a senior chemical engineer for the Gas Technology Institute, an energy research group. "You're not only cleaning up waste; you're talking about distributed generation of oil all over the world." "This is not an incremental change. This is a big, new step," agrees Alf Andreassen, a venture capitalist with the Paladin Capital Group and a former Bell Laboratories director. The offal-derived oil, is chemically almost identical to a number two fuel oil used to heat homes.
Andreassen and others anticipate that a large chunk of the world's agricultural, industrial, and municipal waste may someday go into thermal depolymerization machines scattered all over the globe. If the process works as well as its creators claim, not only would most toxic waste problems become history, so would imported oil. Just converting all the U.S. agricultural waste into oil and gas would yield the energy equivalent of 4 billion barrels of oil annually. In 2001 the United States imported 4.2 billion barrels of oil. Referring to U.S. dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East, R. James Woolsey, former CIA director and an adviser to Changing World Technologies, says, "This technology offers a beginning of a way away from this." But first things first. Today, here at the plant at Philadelphia's Naval Business Center, the experimental feedstock is turkey processing-plant waste: feathers, bones, skin, blood, fat, guts. A forklift dumps 1,400 pounds of the nasty stuff into the machine's first stage, a 350-horsepower grinder that masticates it into gray brown slurry. From there it flows into a series of tanks and pipes, which hum and hiss as they heat, digest, and break down the mixture. Two hours later, a white-jacketed technician turns a spigot. Out pours a honey-colored fluid, steaming a bit in the cold warehouse as it fills a glass beaker. It really is a lovely oil. "The longest carbon chains are C-18 or so," says Appel, admiring the liquid. "That's a very light oil. It is essentially the same as a mix of half fuel oil, half gasoline." Private investors, who have chipped in $40 million to develop the process, aren't the only ones who are impressed. The federal government has granted more than $12 million to push the work along. "We will be able to make oil for $8 to $12 a barrel," says Paul Baskis, the inventor of the process. "We are going to be able to switch to a carbohydrate economy."
Making oil and gas from hydrocarbon-based waste is a trick that Earth mastered long ago. Most crude oil comes from one-celled plants and animals that die, settle to ocean floors, decompose, and are mashed by sliding tectonic plates, a process geologists call subduction. Under pressure and heat, the dead creatures' long chains of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon-bearing molecules, known as polymers, decompose into short-chain petroleum hydrocarbons. However, Earth takes its own sweet time doing thisgenerally thousands or millions of yearsbecause subterranean heat and pressure changes are chaotic. Thermal depolymerization machines turbocharge the process by precisely raising heat and pressure to levels that break the feedstock's long molecular bonds. Many scientists have tried to convert organic solids to liquid fuel using waste products before, but their efforts have been notoriously inefficient. "The problem with most of these methods was that they tried to do the transformation in one stepsuperheat the material to drive off the water and simultaneously break down the molecules," says Appel. That leads to profligate energy use and makes it possible for hazardous substances to pollute the finished product. Very wet wasteand much of the world's waste is wetis particularly difficult to process efficiently because driving off the water requires so much energy. Usually, the Btu content in the resulting oil or gas barely exceeds the amount needed to make the stuff. That's the challenge that Baskis, a microbiologist and inventor who lives in Rantoul, Illinois, confronted in the late 1980s. He says he "had a flash" of insight about how to improve the basic ideas behind another inventor's waste-reforming process. "The prototype I saw produced a heavy, burned oil," recalls Baskis. "I drew up an improvement and filed the first patents." He spent the early 1990s wooing investors and, in 1996, met Appel, a former commodities trader. "I saw what this could be and took over the patents," says Appel, who formed a partnership with the Gas Technology Institute and had a demonstration plant up and running by 1999. Thermal depolymerization, Appel says, has proved to be 85 percent energy efficient for complex feedstocks, such as turkey offal: "That means for every 100 Btus in the feedstock, we use only 15 Btus to run the process." He contends the efficiency is even better for relatively dry raw materials, such as plastics. So how does it work? In the cold Philadelphia warehouse, Appel waves a long arm at the apparatus, which looks surprisingly low tech: a tangle of pressure vessels, pipes, valves, and heat exchangers terminating in storage tanks. It resembles the oil refineries that stretch to the horizon on either side of the New Jersey Turnpike, and in part, that's exactly what it is. Appel strides to a silver gray pressure tank that is 20 feet long, three feet wide, heavily insulated, and wrapped with electric heating coils. He raps on its side. "The chief difference in our process is that we make water a friend rather than an enemy," he says. "The other processes all tried to drive out water. We drive it in, inside this tank, with heat and pressure. We super-hydrate the material." Thus temperatures and pressures need only be modest, because water helps to convey heat into the feedstock. "We're talking about temperatures of 500 degrees Fahrenheit and pressures of about 600 pounds for most organic materialnot at all extreme or energy intensive. And the cooking times are pretty short, usually about 15 minutes." Once the organic soup is heated and partially depolymerized in the reactor vessel, phase two begins. "We quickly drop the slurry to a lower pressure," says Appel, pointing at a branching series of pipes. The rapid depressurization releases about 90 percent of the slurry's free water. Dehydration via depressurization is far cheaper in terms of energy consumed than is heating and boiling off the water, particularly because no heat is wasted. "We send the flashed-off water back up there," Appel says, pointing to a pipe that leads to the beginning of the process, "to heat the incoming stream." At this stage, the mineralsin turkey waste, they come mostly from bonessettle out and are shunted to storage tanks. Rich in calcium and magnesium, the dried brown powder "is a perfect balanced fertilizer," Appel says. The remaining concentrated organic soup gushes into a second-stage reactor similar to the coke ovens used to refine oil into gasoline. "This technology is as old as the hills," says Appel, grinning broadly. The reactor heats the soup to about 900 degrees Fahrenheit to further break apart long molecular chains. Next, in vertical distillation columns, hot vapor flows up, condenses, and flows out from different levels: gases from the top of the column, light oils from the upper middle, heavier oils from the middle, water from the lower middle, and powdered carbonused to manufacture tires, filters, and printer tonersfrom the bottom. "Gas is expensive to transport, so we use it on-site in the plant to heat the process," Appel says. The oil, minerals, and carbon are sold to the highest bidders. Depending on the feedstock and the cooking and coking times, the process can be tweaked to make other specialty chemicals that may be even more profitable than oil. Turkey offal, for example, can be used to produce fatty acids for soap, tires, paints, and lubricants. Polyvinyl chloride, or PVCthe stuff of house siding, wallpapers, and plastic pipesyields hydrochloric acid, a relatively benign and industrially valuable chemical used to make cleaners and solvents. "That's what's so great about making water a friend," says Appel. "The hydrogen in water combines with the chlorine in PVC to make it safe. If you burn PVC [in a municipal-waste incinerator], you get dioxinvery toxic." Brian Appel, CEO of Changing World Technologies, strolls through a thermal depolymerization plant in Philadelphia. Experiments at the pilot facility revealed that the process is scalableplants can sprawl over acres and handle 4,000 tons of waste a day or be "small enough to go on the back of a flatbed truck" and handle just one ton daily, says Appel.
The technicians here have spent three years feeding different kinds of waste into their machinery to formulate recipes. In a little trailer next to the plant, Appel picks up a handful of one-gallon plastic bags sent by a potential customer in Japan. The first is full of ground-up appliances, each piece no larger than a pea. "Put a computer and a refrigerator into a grinder, and that's what you get," he says, shaking the bag. "It's PVC, wood, fiberglass, metal, just a mess of different things. This process handles mixed waste beautifully." Next to the ground-up appliances is a plastic bucket of municipal sewage. Appel pops the lid and instantly regrets it. "Whew," he says. "That is nasty." Experimentation revealed that different waste streams require different cooking and coking times and yield different finished products. "It's a two-step process, and you do more in step one or step two depending on what you are processing," Terry Adams says. "With the turkey guts, you do the lion's share in the first stage. With mixed plastics, most of the breakdown happens in the second stage." The oil-to-mineral ratios vary too. Plastic bottles, for example, yield copious amounts of oil, while tires yield more minerals and other solids. So far, says Adams, "nothing hazardous comes out from any feedstock we try." "The only thing this process can't handle is nuclear waste," Appel says. "If it contains carbon, we can do it." à This Philadelphia pilot plant can handle only seven tons of waste a day, but 1,054 miles to the west, in Carthage, Missouri, about 100 yards from one of ConAgra Foods' massive Butterball Turkey plants, sits the company's first commercial-scale thermal depolymerization plant. The $20 million facility, scheduled to go online any day, is expected to digest more than 200 tons of turkey-processing waste every 24 hours.
The north side of Carthage smells like Thanksgiving all the time. At the Butterball plant, workers slaughter, pluck, parcook, and package 30,000 turkeys each workday, filling the air with the distinctive tang of boiling bird. A factory tour reveals the grisly realities of large-scale poultry processing. Inside, an endless chain of hanging carcasses clanks past knife-wielding laborers who slash away. Outside, a tanker truck idles, full to the top with fresh turkey blood. For many years, ConAgra Foods has trucked the plant's wastefeathers, organs, and other nonusable partsto a rendering facility where it was ground and dried to make animal feed, fertilizer, and other chemical products. But bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, can spread among cattle from recycled feed, and although no similar disease has been found in poultry, regulators are becoming skittish about feeding animals to animals. In Europe the practice is illegal for all livestock. Since 1997, the United States has prohibited the feeding of most recycled animal waste to cattle. Ultimately, the specter of European-style mad-cow regulations may kick-start the acceptance of thermal depolymerization. "In Europe, there are mountains of bones piling up," says Alf Andreassen. "When recycling waste into feed stops in this country, it will change everything." Because depolymerization takes apart materials at the molecular level, Appel says, it is "the perfect process for destroying pathogens." On a wet afternoon in Carthage, he smiles at the new plantan artless assemblage of gray and dun-colored buildingsas if it were his favorite child. "This plant will make 10 tons of gas per day, which will go back into the system to make heat to power the system," he says. "It will make 21,000 gallons of water, which will be clean enough to discharge into a municipal sewage system. Pathological vectors will be completely gone. It will make 11 tons of minerals and 600 barrels of oil, high-quality stuff, the same specs as a number two heating oil." He shakes his head almost as if he can't believe it. "It's amazing. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't even consider us waste handlers. We are actually manufacturersthat's what our permit says. This process changes the whole industrial equation. Waste goes from a cost to a profit." He watches as burly men in coveralls weld and grind the complex loops of piping. A group of 15 investors and corporate advisers, including Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, stroll among the sparks and hissing torches, listening to a tour led by plant manager Don Sanders. A veteran of the refinery business, Sanders emphasizes that once the pressurized water is flashed off, "the process is similar to oil refining. The equipment, the procedures, the safety factors, the maintenanceit's all proven technology." And it will be profitable, promises Appel. "We've done so much testing in Philadelphia, we already know the costs," he says. "This is our first-out plant, and we estimate we'll make oil at $15 a barrel. In three to five years, we'll drop that to $10, the same as a medium-size oil exploration and production company. And it will get cheaper from there." "We've got a lot of confidence in this," Buffett says. "I represent ConAgra's investment. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't anticipate success." Buffett isn't alone. Appel has lined up federal grant money to help build demonstration plants to process chicken offal and manure in Alabama and crop residuals and grease in Nevada. Also in the works are plants to process turkey waste and manure in Colorado and pork and cheese waste in Italy. He says the first generation of depolymerization centers will be up and running in 2005. By then it should be clear whether the technology is as miraculous as its backers claim.
It reminds me of a major chemical company I visited in Japan. When they were starting out, they were actually a mining company that produced enormous amounts of waste acid as part of their mining operation. One clever fellow decided that there must be some use for the stuff and began marketing it rather than throwing it in the ocean. It was so profitable that today they do a lot of chemistry and no mining at all.
Following the same pattern, there have been waste brokers (at least in the US) that sniff around for what one company throws away in case some other company would be willing to pay for it. It's a niche field, to be sure, but worth quite a bit of money if you can hook up with the right businesses.
I had theorized that some very high tech method would eventually be employed for organic wastes (y'know, genetically engineered organisms and nano-scale catalysts). Who would've thought that just cooking the stuff was all that was needed?
Next step Soylent Green. "I am a human being!"
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