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Oil Crisis? Never Doubt Human Ingenuity

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  • Lanyon, Ryan
    http://www.discover.com/may_03/gthere.html?article=featoil.html DISCOVER Vol. 24 No. 5 (May 2003) Table of Contents Anything into Oil Technological savvy could
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 22, 2003
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      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.
      "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
      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
      this-generally thousands or millions of years-because 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 step-superheat 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 waste-and much of the world's waste
      is wet-is 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 material-not 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
      At this stage, the minerals-in turkey waste, they come mostly from
      bones-settle out and are shunted to storage tanks. Rich in calcium and
      magnesium, the dried brown powder "is a perfect balanced fertilizer," Appel
      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 carbon-used to
      manufacture tires, filters, and printer toners-from 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

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