[Paleopsych] energy future & depolymerization (LONG!)
Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D.
ljohnson at solution-consulting.com
Sun Aug 8 23:25:33 UTC 2004
Steve's link and the Ehrlich material reminded me of a recent discussion
on another forum on thermal depolymerization. Disclaimer: My brother,
the professor of Chemical Engineering, says the numbers in the article
below are bogus. The concept is fascinating, namely that if we convert
all the existing carbon in the current system into fuel, we don't
increase CO2 in the atmosphere, since it is a closed loop. Only by
burning fossil fuels would we continue to increase CO2.
For your consideration.
This discussion is from:
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
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
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
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.
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 stream."
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 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 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 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 PVC----the stuff of house siding, wallpapers, and
plastic pipes----yields 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 dioxin----very
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 scalable----plants 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."
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 waste----feathers, organs, and
other nonusable parts----to 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 plant----an artless
assemblage of gray and dun-colored buildings----as 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 manufacturers----that'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
The equipment, the procedures, the safety factors, the
maintenance----it'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.
Chemistry, not alchemy, turns (A) turkey offal----guts, skin, bones,
fat, blood, and feathers----into a variety of useful products. After the
first-stage heat-and-pressure reaction, fats, proteins, and
carbohydrates break down into (B) carboxylic oil, which is composed of
fatty acids, carbohydrates, and amino acids. The second-stage reaction
strips off the fatty acids' carboxyl group (a carbon atom, two oxygen
atoms, and a hydrogen atom) and breaks the remaining hydrocarbon chains
into smaller fragments, yielding (C)
a light oil. This oil can be used as is, or further distilled (using a
larger version of the bench-top distiller in the background) into
lighter fuels such as (D) naphtha, (E) gasoline, and (F) kerosene. The
process also yields (G) fertilizer-grade minerals derived mostly from
bones and (H) industrially useful carbon black.
Garbage In, Oil Out
Feedstock is funneled into a grinder and mixed with water to create a
slurry that is pumped into the first-stage reactor, where heat and
pressure partially break apart long molecular chains. The resulting
organic soup flows into a flash vessel where pressure drops
dramatically, liberating some of the water, which returns back upstream
to preheat the flow into the first-stage reactor. In the second-stage
reactor, the remaining organic material is subjected to more intense
heat, continuing the breakup of molecular chains. The resulting hot
vapor then goes into vertical distillation tanks, which separate it into
gases, light oils, heavy oils, water, and solid carbon. The gases are
burned on-site to make heat to power the process, and the water, which
is pathogen free, goes to a municipal waste plant. The oils and carbon
are deposited in storage tanks, ready for sale.
---- Brad Lemley
A Boon to Oil and Coal Companies
One might expect fossil-fuel companies to fight thermal
depolymerization. If the process can make oil out of waste, why would
anyone bother to get it out of the ground? But switching to an energy
economy based entirely on reformed waste will be a long process,
requiring the construction of thousands of thermal depolymerization
plants. In the meantime, thermal depolymerization can make the petroleum
industry itself cleaner and more profitable, says
John Riordan, president and CEO of the Gas Technology Institute, an
industry research organization. Experiments at the Philadelphia thermal
depolymerization plant have converted heavy crude oil, shale, and tar
sands into light oils, gases, and graphite-type carbon. "When you refine
petroleum, you end up with a heavy solid-waste product that's a big
problem," Riordan says. "This technology will convert these waste materials
into natural gas, oil, and carbon. It will fit right into the existing
Appel says a modified version of thermal depolymerization could be used
to inject steam into underground tar-sand deposits and then refine them
into light oils at the surface, making this abundant,
difficult-to-access resource far more available. But the coal industry
may become thermal depolymerization's biggest fossil-fuel beneficiary.
"We can clean up coal dramatically," says Appel. So far, experiments
show the process can extract sulfur, mercury, naphtha, and
olefins----all salable commodities----from coal, making it burn hotter
and cleaner. Pretreating with thermal depolymerization also makes coal
more friable, so less energy is needed to crush it before combustion in
Can Thermal Depolymerization Slow Global Warming?
If the thermal depolymerization process WORKS AS Claimed, it will clean
up waste and generate new sources of energy. But its backers contend it
could also stem global warming, which sounds iffy. After all, burning
oil creates global warming, doesn't it? Carbon is the major chemical
constituent of most organic matter----plants take it in; animals eat
plants, die, and decompose; and plants take it back in, ad infinitum.
Since the industrial revolution, human beings burning fossil fuels have
boosted concentrations of atmospheric carbon more than 30 percent,
disrupting the ancient cycle. According to global-warming theory, as
carbon in the form of carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, it
traps solar radiation, which warms the atmosphere----and, some say,
disrupts the planet's ecosystems. But if there were a global shift to
thermal depolymerization technologies, belowground carbon would remain
there. The accoutrements of the civilized world----domestic animals and
plants, buildings, artificial objects of all kinds----would then be
regarded as temporary carbon sinks. At the end of their useful lives,
they would be converted in thermal depolymerization machines into
short-chain fuels, fertilizers, and industrial raw materials, ready for
plants or people to convert them back into long chains again. So the
only carbon used would be that which already existed above the surface;
it could no longer dangerously accumulate in the atmosphere. "Suddenly,
the whole built world just becomes a temporary carbon sink," says Paul
Baskis, inventor of the thermal depolymerization process. "We would be
honoring the balance of nature."
RELATED WEB SITES:
To learn more about the thermal depolymerization process, visit Changing
World Technologies' Web site: www.changingworldtech.com.
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