USS Clueless - Oil from garbage

Stardate 20030421.1404

(On Screen): A lot of people have sent me links to an article in Discovery Magazine about a process which is purported to be able to convert various kinds of garbage and offal into oil. The headline breathlessly claims, Technological savvy could turn 600 million tons of turkey guts and other waste into 4 billion barrels of light Texas crude each year.

Unfortunately, we don't produce 600 million tons of turkey guts every year. As to the "other waste", not all of it is going to be appropriate for this. (Despite their claims.)

I spent a rather exasperated week last September writing a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) about the question of whether the US could reduce its use of oil by switching to alternative sources of energy, to a degree sufficient to actually be politically significant, and each time I said "no" people sent me more pointers to other things to say "no" about. I was finally reduced to begging people to stop writing to me about it.

Like so many of these things, grandiose claims are being made. (Most engineers have seen these kinds of claims before.) It can revolutionize the world. It can make us all rich. Just sign right here on the dotted line, OK?

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.

Someone looking for investment will quite naturally try to make things look as fantastic as possible, and in any case enthusiastic developers always overestimate the importance of what they've created.

Of course, one has to wonder whether there's something hokie going on.

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.

"Steaming"? Since when does oil steam, no matter how warm it gets?

Beware of grandiose claims, people. The most likely conclusion is that they're overselling this because they're trying to find investors.

But let's also keep in mind the question of scale. It's not a question of whether it works. It's a question of how big it can get. They claim that almost any kind of organic waste can be processed this way, and I'm quite skeptical about that. In particular, I'm highly skeptical about their ability to reprocess cellulose completely in such a short time with a process like this. Which is why garbage and sewage sludge are unlikely to be susceptible to this process, because both include substantial amounts of cellulose. (The process described in the article sounds a lot like what is done in a paper mill, and that doesn't cause the cellulose to break down.)

The actual kinds of wastes which could be processed in this way will probably turn out to be much more restricted than they are willing to admit right now. If so, it will be a valuable way for slaughterhouses to dispose of offal, but won't actually produce enough energy to make any difference strategically.

And in any case, it won't do so soon enough to affect this war.

Update 20030426: Greg Hlatky is also skeptical.

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Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004