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Alchemy or insanity?

I just did a random link from the list on the left here such as I like to do from time to time, and I got to this blog, and to a link from it to this article. What is being described here sounds amazing, and although I did look to see if the date April 1st was involved, this seems to be for real. Someone thinks it’s for real, at any rate.

Someone called Appel is busy developing a process which turns rubbish into riches.

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.

“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.

I’m always impressed by the savvy and general informedness of the best Samizdata comments on technology issues. So, people, any comments on this stuff? Is this thing all that these guys are cracking it up to be? Or is it fatally flawed? Miracle or mug’s game? Genius or madness? Alchemy or insanity? Or maybe just somewhere in between, and boring? I’d love to know.

If it’s half as good as they’re saying, this looks like another wonder of capitalism to add to the collection. But then again, maybe this has all been gone into weeks ago, and proved idiotic.

If it does work, how long will it take for the environmental lobby to decide that they hate it? Because if this is a wonder of capitalism, they will hate it.

28 comments to Alchemy or insanity?

  • Didn’t I see this in Back to the Future? No wait a minute that was Mr. Fusion. This is Mr. Petro. I can’t wait until the IPO.

  • Doug Collins

    This got commented on back in April (22) when the tread wandered away from an article on fuel cells.
    If I can get the link right, it was Hydrogen, hype and oil

  • Steven Den Beste is basically skeptical of the claims. I am too. Read SBD’s Apr 21 post here.

  • Wow, between this and the Segway changing the way our cities are designed any day now, the future sure is lookin’ bright.

    I think Steven Seagal talked about this at the end of “On Deadly Ground”.

    Seriously, I don’t want to sound like an anti-capitalist tree-hugger, but if it were “real”, the current established oil industry might “hate it” too.

  • Doug Collins

    “but if it were “real”, the current established oil industry might “hate it” too.”

    I don’t think so. The current established oil industry in the US is largely a natural gas industry.
    A major part of our crude and refined crude products are already imported. I don’t know if this is true in Britain also but I think it is likely.

  • Actually, the process is more a way of doing something useful with waste than producing fossil fuels. It is more expensive to produce fuel by this process than by conventional means. But apparently the cost of the process, when coupled with the ability to recoup costs by selling the products of the process, and the relatively benign nature of both the products and by-products, makes the process more attractive than other ways of getting rid of the waste materials in question.

    Said another way, if this process were our ONLY way of getting oil and gas, we’d have to pay a much higher price for it at the pump (although backers think their process will be more competitive in the future). On the other hand, if we can use this process to transform potentially toxic (or inert, space-consuming) waste into relatively benign or valuable substances, reduce pollution (not to mention the lawsuit or criminal penalty exposure from pollution!) and make a little money back in the process, that all begins to sound pretty good! It sure beats mixing potentially diseased turkey guts into cattle feed, doesn’t it?

  • Does anyone know what happened to bio-diesel?

    A couple of years ago I heard some reasonably credible claims that a way had been found to turn vegetable oil into diesel that could be used to run standard engines. In the short term it was a way for a couple of fanatical greenies to run cars off ship-shop waste (seriously), but if they could make the process cheaper there was a hope of growing fuel in fields eventually. I just haven’t heard anything about it since some minor inital hype….

  • Joe

    Combine that oil production with Motionless Electronic Generators the cost of the energy and usable chemicals being produced would be negligable and we enter a whole new world… if only it was that easy… and these things can be made to work!

  • Edmund Burke

    It would be wonderful if it were true, just to see the green-socialists gibber with ever increasing fury as their toys are taken from them.

  • Doug’s right – this link was already posted in another samizdata discussion over a month ago. I recall longer ago than that, but I may be wrong.

  • JH

    Biodiesel does exist.There’s a few plants out there that can be used to make this stuff.I think soybeans and some other oil-producind plants were on the list.The big problem is the same thing as with ethanol:high cost of production.Plus the competing demand on using them for food.

  • Ghaleon

    I heard about Changing World Technologies before… If it really work, it’s incredible and they say they have already tested it on many things…

    Personally, I think it will work… They tested it, they say it work and many people continu to trust them… the result must be there!

    I’m positive, this didn’t seem like a joke… in 2010, i’m sure it will be everywhere=)

  • It sounds too good to be true. But then, so did the personal computer — and that’s from a man who had a PDP-11/34 in his basement for several years, friends.

    Ultimately, there’s no physical barrier against transforming anything into anything else. Ask Hans Bethe. But whether the necessary energy resources exist, and whether it would be economically worthwhile to surmount the various technological obstacles, is another question.

    In his fine novel First Citizen, Thomas T. Thomas (yes, that’s his real name) speculated that practical use of the garbage resource depended on taming the separation costs and getting properly in sync with usage cycles. He might have been right. But until someone actually pulls it off, we can’t know. For the moment, we’ll all have to sit back and watch.

  • Ghaleon

    At least, we might smile in the future when someone says ”there won’t be any oil left in 2050”

    If it wasn’t to work, I doubt the government would help the project or that important compagnies would care about it… It might be risky, but be sure that it’s calculated risk and that the chance that it could work must be good.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Doug Collins in comment number 2 above supplies the link to a discussion, partly of this same article (linked to by Ken Hagler in an early comment but not linked to by Johnathan Pearce), and partly of the article that was linked to by Johnathan. I think I skimmed Johnathan’s post, and may have glanced at the Wired article, but I didn’t read the comments. Mea culpa.

    Go down towards the end of the comments on Johnathan’s posting, and you’ll find Byron arguing strongly for the “there could really be something to this” position. There’s also cautious specific confirmation that the vital technological breakthrough (something to do with the different handling of water to the old way of doing this kind of thing) might indeed make a big difference.

    Has there been any further reaction to this Discover article, since the time of this Samizdata discussion in late April I mean?

    I’m going to go look at Discover itself now. Don’t know what I’ll find.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    A little googling (a skill I have only recently got into – so if you try to do better, you’ll surely succeed) got me to this article in MIT’s Technology Review. At the bottom is a “join the discussion” button, and there is a discussion.

    And I also found my way from this to this weblog posting, and this follow-up posting by the same guy, both with comments, pro and anti, and (inevitably) lots of comments saying: IF it works wow!

  • We shouldn’t have to wait long to learn whether the latest shot at Thermo Depolymerization actually works. ConAgra’s poultry processing plant at Carthage Missouri (mentioned in several articles cited above) is slated to open their TDP waste-disposal unit literally any day now. (Reports from April and May predicted “late May or early June.”)

  • Kevin L. Connors

    This crowd is too sharp. Between James Merritt and Joe, I have nothing of value to add here.

  • David Mercer

    Biodiesel is still out there, the problem is that it doesn’t scale. SDB dared me to do the research and math to find out what percentage of the gasoline/diesel use of the US could be replaced by biodeisel, and I took him up on the dare.

    One week, many spreadsheets and countless hours of surfing govt. and academic sites for data later, I arrived at a big NO. If you planted ALL of the farmland of the US in the highest oil producing crops, you’d still only hit 15%, and that’s using wildly optimistic numbers.

    5-10% is probably more realistic.

    We use a LOT of oil!

  • Yes, we do use a lot of oil!

    In contrast to biodiesel, I think methanol/ethanol is probably the best strategy for renewable fuel. Even so, the US probably wouldn’t be completely independent of oil, rather the fuel would be a blend of 85% alcohol and 15% gasoline. There are some questions about production scalability and cost. Of the former, there would need to be a massive plant expansion to reach that level of replacement. Of the latter, the gov’t subsidies that create market distortions in the ag sector really obscure the true cost of production. However, if ethanol (which in the US is generally made from corn or sugar beets) would increase demand, the gov’t wouldn’t have much of an excuse to keep up farm subsidies.

    As for another comment I saw about re-using trash…yes, I think that in the future, todays land-fills will likely be harvested as sources of cheap resources. There are many problems to be overcome, but I’m confident that it will be done, and probably within the next 50 years.

  • David Mercer: thanks for the information. 5% is far worse than I expected…

    The greenie spin on bio-diesel was that it would be carbon-neutral because every harvest would be replaced by new planting. In itself I think this is true, but as a frustrated greenie myself (frustrated by the science phobia that seems to dominate the green lobby) it comes as no surprise to see that this spin ignored/was unaware of the scaling issue.

    Excuse my ignorance, but who or what is/are SDB?

  • Jacob

    “If it wasn’t to work, I doubt the government would help the project ” ???
    For me it’s the other way round – whenever government steps in and promotes some project it is a sure sign that it is useless, otherwise it would not need government money.

    ” but I’m confident that it will be done, and probably within the next 50 years.”
    Oh, what prophetic powers !!!
    Miserable me, I fail to correctly estimate next month’s evets. You fall a little short of those climatologists who predict the temperatures 100 years from now, but 50 years is still very good.

  • Sigivald

    eldean: SDB is Steven Den Beste of USS Clueless fame, see http://www.denbeste.nu.

    Regarding Biodiesel – as others have said, it’s around. But it costs significantly more than normal diesel (around here, at lest $.25 a gallon more), and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. As Mr. Mercer said, it takes a lot of biomass to make the fuel with current processes.

    The thermal polymerisation process looks promising as a way to use wastes productively, but it ain’t gonna replace black gold anytime soon … or, indeed, ever, really.

  • Regarding methanol/ethanol, I read an analysis awhile back that was most discouraging. The conclusion was that the process of producing alcohol from farm crops represented a net energy loss: far more energy went into producing a gallon of alcohol than could be recovered by using it as fuel (and this was just the human-supplied energy component … there was no accounting for the solar “energy” used to grow the crops in the first place, since that energy was effectively “free of charge”). Much of the energy input typically comes from sources that are ultimately based on … you guessed it … fossil fuels!

    Methanol/ethanol blends with gasoline are a great boon (i.e., source of subsidy) to farmers, but seem, on balance, to be a non-solution to our most pressing energy or pollution issues. As in the TDP case, if a process produces methanol/ethanol as WASTE, then it makes sense to use that waste to help the energy situation. But from what I have read, it doesn’t make economic/ecological sense to produce the alcohol specifically to serve as fuel. If anybody is interested in cross-checking this info, I could probably pull up and post the URL.

  • To be brief:

    1) Thermal depolymerization is a good way of getting rid of waste.
    2) It’s a bad way to make oil.
    3) There’s much less energy in a ton of turkey waste (12 million BTU) than a ton of coal (20.5 million BTU).
    4) The ConAgra plant will process 200 tons of turkey waste a day.
    5) A typical oil refinery processes 30,000-50,000 tons of crude a day.
    6) Converting waste into oil is just Step 1 and actually the easiest step. There’s a lot more to refining than that (reforming, cracking, etc.).
    7) Unless you’re dealing with one type of feedstock, the process conditions in TDP have to be changed constantly.
    8) I wish them well, but this isn’t going to change the world.

  • Ghaleon

    2-Your negative=)

    3+4+5… The idea is to make the plant next to the production spot… 200 tons only maybe, but how many industries in the US do you think could do the same thing… A lot.

    7… The same thing as above, I doubt there will be giant plant, but many plant specialized in certain product next to the production spot.

    It sure if you look at today number it’s not incredibly good, but the technologie must be developped and better way to think the production must be found.

    1.. that’s enought to change one huge problem in the world=)

  • T. Hartin

    It never ceases to amaze me that the greens are pushing things like biodiesel and ethanol. These fuels require that crops be grown, and growing enough crops to feed the ethanol/biodiesel plants will require that enormous amounts of land be put under the plow. Since when are greens in favor of plowing up woods and prairies to grow crops?

  • It amazes me how many of these people posting here are missing the point. It’s not that you have to grow a crop to produce fuel. It’s that all this waste is produced in the process of living. Farm waste, industrial waste, your shit. No mater what any of these people say, we are all going to keep producing lots of shit, and it’s our shit that is going to be turned into oil using the thermo depolymerization process.

    As for burning oil… At least the oil in the ground stays there. Everything we produce with carbon in it effectively becomes a carbon sink, while the process safely handles these same produces at the end of their life, whether, sewage, garbage, whatever. No more sewage spilling into the lakes and rivers.

    While the Egyptians left pyramids for future generations to marvel at, so far we are leaving garbage dumps. With this system, at least, we may end up mining our garbage dumps and cleaning up the land.