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The Forever Refinery

This is big. I mean it is really big. It is so big I had to take time from paid work to pass it along.

A small entrepreneurial company, Changing World Technologies, has just extended the Petroleum age to infinity. That’s right. We aren’t going to run out of oil. Ever. To top it off, we won’t be adding more carbon to the atmosphere – we will just be recycling the same carbon stocks over and over again. Even better: we can tell OPEC to go rotate because fuel imports will become a thing of the past.

Does this all seem like fantasy? It did to me when I first heard about it, but the more I read the more convinced I am. The technology takes any carbon based waste, and I do mean any carbon based waste and turns it into high quality oil, water and some minerals at 85% energy efficiency. 15% of the output supplies enough energy to run the process. It’s not hype and vu-graphs either. They’ve got a real pilot plant going up beside the Butterball Turkey plant in Carthage, Missouri. Oil from turkey offal.

They estimate the US could supply all of it’s oil needs from recycling. It’s not a technology likely to get buried either. The large oil companies can phase into the new technology with hardly a dropped dividend.

It is also of interest for the ‘Small is Beautiful’ crowd and those of us in the Space settlement community. The technology scales both up and down. If you live in the middle of the Australian outback, you can chuck your shite and animal carcasses into the hopper on one end… and fill up the old diesel RV from the other fifteen minutes later.

Julian Simon is giggling in his grave.

Missouri Commercial Plant

Carthage, Missouri Commercial Plant at Butterball Turkey factory is operational.
Photo: Changing World Technologies

The economic, strategic, social and libertarian implications of this are huge. I’ve not the time to write down the mass of thoughts whirling around in my head right now, but I am certain I can depend on our literate readership to expand on the possibilities and write them up for me. See you in comments when I’ve some spare time!

One of our readers has pointed out this article about the current status of the venture. The first plant is online and others are now funded and in planning.

70 comments to The Forever Refinery

  • Holy Chicken Guts, Batman! That really is amazing! Superb. Holy crap!

  • Great news, unless you are a turkey or a Saudi.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Would this be the same process discussed in this previous Samizdata piece?

  • Sorry, I’m afraid not. What you’re seeing is an upstart company looking for funding and enthusiasm which is making a lot of wild claims.

    The reality is much less impressive. For instance, you can forget about chucking “any waste” into these things, because the catalysts they use are easily poisoned by trace amounts of a wide variety of metals which can be found in a lot of kinds of wastes.

  • Dale Amon

    Ah, Brian slipped one by on me. Nonetheless, it is more than big enough for the both of us.

  • Matt W.

    I wish they could be a little less vague about the process, as it seems to me that it would be almost impossible to get out fuel grade oil without inputting more energy than you produce. Still, if they worked the kinks out (and I think they must if they got that much grant money and have built two working systems) then this will be wonderful, it will defang a big environmentalist whine, and will slaughter OPEC. It also solves the chief complaint with fuel grade ethanol production (aside from cost of entry), in that ANY biological product can be used to produce fuel, not just corn or some narrow range of grain. Hell, with this, you could just divert most dump trucks from landfills and to oil plants. Still, the skeptical side of me keeps saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Hopefully that voice will be wrong.

  • Dale Amon

    Well Steven, I guess we’ll see how the pilot plant turns out, n’est-ce pas?

    Results are much more impressive to me than all the naysayers in the world. If they fail, they fail. If the plant succeeds….

  • The primary place where this process will be useful will be in applications where there’s a waste stream which previously cost money to dispose of, which is well controlled and not contaminated by the relevant metals.

    The legendary “turkey guts” comes to mind. What a plant like this would do is to reduce the overall operating cost of a slaughter house.

    But it doesn’t scale up to the level of “infinitely sustainable petroleum use” or anything remotely close to that, and it can’t be used with “any carbon-based waste”.

    The process works. That’s not the point. The point is that as a practical matter it’s only of limited use.

  • “Gory refuse, from a Butterball Turkey plant in Carthage, Missouri, will no longer go to waste.”

    It never did – it got put into burgers, but what with the latest British government inititative to outlaw fatty foods, Butterball are looking for new ideas for its disposal.

  • Dale Amon

    By the time they’ve filled the niche market with plants to process turkey guts, farm cuttings, packing plant leftovers, and a thousand other well defined waste sources, I’m sure they’ll have the money to scale it up to handling the output of city sewage plants. And after a few more decades and billions, they might well be able to handle anything.

    Catalyst problems are not necessarily show stoppers. It all depends on the R&D you can throw at them to crack the processing problem.

    They’ve got a solid growth path. They should be able to self fund the research to improve the basic process and expand into new markets.

    Even if, as you say, it is ‘impossible’ to improve their process… at their market saturation point that is a hell of a lot of oil output per year.

  • And it ought to put some nice psychological pressure on those owning oil who’ll have to watch this process gradually gaining market-share.

    And Steven, don’t be such a spoil-sport; I’m still sulking about your posts on the impracticallity of solar power satellites. 😉

  • Dale Amon

    Steven doesn’t like Geo SPS? Oh, if I only had the time… they are quite feasible, every bit of technology has been tested. When launch costs come down and we have access to extraterrestrial materials, they become quite feasible.

    I used to exchange Christmas cards with Dr. Glaser btw. He invented them AFAIK.

    But I am off to make supper now, and I’ve got work still stacked up when I get back, so would someone please handle the SPS defense? It’s really rather easy. Just go look for Sunsat Energy Council or Space Studies Institute. Ignore the DOE rigged study that used all earth based launch… one of the guys who was part of it told me how seriously annoyed he was at the way the thing was slanted (it was Carter years) to shut up the techies and keep going on with their invented energy crisis.

  • Peter Melia

    Am I understanding this correctly? Suppose there is a unit amount of (say) 100KW of low grade waste, normally irreducible in any meaningful way.
    Along comes CWT and apply their process, liberating 85KW of usable energy, the remaining 15% becoming really low grade waste. Of the 85% output they use 15%, equals 12.75KW to feed back as power to the process, thus making it a closed power loop. This leaves 85% of 85KW, equals 72.75KW, per 100KW low grade input, as useful energy. Is that correct?

  • Susan

    I feel a Soylent Green moment coming on. . .

  • Mike Loew

    I’ve seen articles about this before. It’s obviously just another variation of the old perpeptual motion machine scheme. I’m disappointed that Discover reported on it.

  • dc

    As it happens their first production plant is going online now and they plan to build “dozens of similar plants in the next five years, then hundreds”.

  • dc

    Steven, where do catalysts come into the process? As far as I can see it’s “just” heat and pressure.

    Mike, there is less energy out than energy in so it’s not a perpetual motion process (a lot more energy was used to raise the turkeys in the first place).

    Peter, the whole process is allegedly 85% efficient. According to this article “The yield from 100 pounds of slaughterhouse waste, which includes feathers, bones, sludge and grease, is 39 pounds of oil, 6 pounds of gas, 5 pounds of carbon and minerals and 50 pounds of water” so it recovers almost all the carbon as energy.

  • Mace

    I hope this isn’t the 2003 version of Cold fusion.

    I work in the electric utility industry and we’re approached by con men all the time promoting free energy machines. Let’s hope these aren’t con men.

  • Michael Stamps

    A few notes. I’ve read the original Discover article and a few others that I’ve found
    so these are impressions I got from the lot.

    1) The process isn’t new. It’s called “Thermal depolymerization” and it’s been around a while.
    What they’ve done is find an efficient way of doing it.

    2) There seems to be a bit of confusion on the %85/%15 numbers quoted. What they are
    saying is that for an output of X barrels of oil and other products it takes %15 of
    the energy that the products would contain make it. I.E. If you were to make 100 barrels of
    oil you would need 15 barrels worth of energy to fire up the process. This is where
    they have made strides since it used to take like %95 or better in older versions of
    thermal depolymerizaton machines.
    Also note that the system does not produce only oil. It’s basically just a refinery stack
    and other things than oil will be produced. One of the articles I read mentioned that
    they intended to use the gas products generated by the process as their fuel source since
    it is harder to ship the gasses.
    Also the %15 is for wet materials. Dry materials use less energy to conert.

    3) I haven’t seen any mention of a Catalyst. The process seems to be grind up the feedstock,
    super-hydrate the material, rapidly depresurize it to drive off most of the water, settle off
    the solids (which can be used for other things) then off to a standard vertical distillation

    4) I believe they can use any type of carbon material as feedstock. Saw an interesting chart
    at one site that gave the barrels of oil produced depending on the inputs. Wish I could find
    it again but they listed things like old tires, slaughterhouse refuse and people as inputs…

    5) I’m not sure I understand the perpetual motion statement. This is simply a way of converting
    one organic to another. To get the energy out at the end you still have to ‘burn’ the final

    Here is a link to the original Discover article

    Discover Magazine Article

  • Dale Amon

    Anyone who thinks this is an entropy violation doesn’t understand thermo and didn’t read the article. We are talking about a chemical engineering process which generates fuel oil. The energy input to the chemical process can be ‘replaced’ by using 15% of the resulting fuel oil. This no different than stating the percentage of gasoline output from a cracking plant would have to be used to supply the energy using in the cracking and distillation process.

    You get to use the carbon over and over because when you burn hydrocarbon fuel you get CO2, which plants take in and use to build new hydrocarbons using sunlight. The last I heard, trees were on the legal side of thermo.

    The process itself strikes me as bearing some similarities to the way oil is created in nature. This company has just found a way to speed the cycle time up by a few hundred million years…

    You probably still need a good primary energy source for baseload electricity. In the long run that will probably be fusion power. Hell, it can’t be 20 years in the future forever… and if it is still 20 years in the future 40 years from now, we’ll be building those Geostationary Solar Power Satellites to do the job.

    Petrol is an almost ideal fuel for transport however; a high power density, easy storage and transfer, not too volatile. It’s nice to know we’ll still be able to drag race with Boss 429’s when we’re all old and grey.

  • JH

    Does anyone remember the “black light” guy who thought he could create free energy by pushing the electron in the hydrogen atom “below ground state”?Remember the guy from Britain with the “indestructible plastic” a few years back?

    What I want to say is that people tend to forget all the thousands of frauds and failures who came before, promising to solve all the world’s problems with one stroke. The end result is kind of like the movie Groundhog Day.Every time somebody comes up with a new fix-it-all scheme,the press and the public fall for it like they’ve never heard anything like it before.

    Let’s not mistake enthusiasm for dementia,OK?

  • Emo

    I hear you JH – I first heard about this over a year ago, when it was being hailed on websites more obscure than Samizdata as “so big I had to take time from paid work to pass it along”.

    In theory, it solves not just economic but geopolitical problems as well – AND it cuts pollution, both by reducing emissions and reducing waste.

    So why could most people not care a less about this? Why isn’t anyone buying it, figuratively or literally? Why isn’t the stock of this company worth more than the global oil market? Either it’s complete nonsense, or there’s some global conspiracy to preserve the power of OPEC. One of these options sounds quite likely to me, the other one doesn’t.

  • Dale Amon

    Just to bring the whole thing home, I’ve added a photo of the first commercial plant to the article. This isn’t a theoretical discussion, it’s first stage commercial reality.

  • Jacob

    The problem is, as Steven den Beste uses to point out, a quantitative one. If you calculate the energy content of all the wastes available – you will find it is a small fraction of what we use daily. So, even if the process works as advertised, there is no way it can supply more than a tiny fraction of our energy needs.
    “you can chuck your shite and animal carcasses…” a peace of shite will take you only so far … as for your horse – it will take you much further riding on it that chucking it into the machine …

  • To add to Jacob’s objection…

    The logical extension of this is to use other forms of biomass – such as crops grown for energy production, and run it through this or some other technique to make oil or ethanol or gasoline.

    The problem is that this just isn’t anywhere close to cost efficient, and it takes huge amounts of land.

    There is actually a large amount of unused carbon already available. Its in the form of coal. The US has enormous reserves, and it can be directly burned with modern systems without the pollution that it is famous for. There are also huge supplies of oil sands in Canada, and natural gas around the world.

    The only excuse for using renewables is anthropogenic global warming, but that theory is far from proven; its effects may be beneficial; and, the economic costs of making significant changes in it dramatically dwarf those of the Kyoto treaty (which, by the models of the same people who proposed it, would make no measurable difference in 100 years, and if you could measure it it, you would find it would only delay the changes by 6 years).

    Or, as my climatologist researcher friend said at lunch this week:

    “I’m in favor of global pollution controls. But CO2 isn’t a pollutant. If you are worried about warming, worry about water vapor!”

  • Michael Stamps

    Thing is that even if it didn’t produce *ANY* oil it’s
    still gonna save people money just getting rid of
    the refuse (like the Turkey Guts) that they are having to pay to have taken away now.

  • Dale Amon

    The fact that they aren’t billionaires just yet is rather obvious. This a maufacturing plant technology, and even small plants take a year or so to build; large ones can take half a decade or more. They’re just at the point of coming on line with the first commercial plant. I’m sure it will have bugs. All processes do. I’m just as sure big investment will be waiting on the results. If it works, there will be a lot more plants built.

    Note the statement in the Discover article:

    “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.”

    We are not talking about replacing all US energy sources. Just the vehicle fuel and perhaps heating oil.

  • Steven, Jacob and John are right. When a researcher sat down to figure out how much fossil carbon we use and how much is sequestered in biomass he determined that it would take 1/4 of total planet biomass to equal fossil fuel use. Every bit of crops grown would have to be used, not just a few “wastes” which aren’t often wasted now. We have much better uses for organic matter than burning it. We need netter energy generation technology than dirt burning.

  • Dale Amon

    back40: You have neglected to supply either a citation or the calculation details, so I’m afraid I must take your statement with a very large grain of NaCl…

  • RB

    It is not necessary to completely replace all petroleum the US consumes with renewable energy. Just replacing a substantial part of the imported fossil fuels would have a tremendous geopolitical impact.

    This technology is not proven, so let’s put it on probation for now. If it proves out close to the claims being made, there is room for it as part of the overall energy strategy.

    Tar sands and oil shale are not really economical to recover yet. Coal is not as clean as other fossil fuels. Nuclear waste disposal is a nightmare. Solar and wind are not reliable in terms of load matching. We are at war over middle eastern oil reserves.

    New energy sources, if they prove out, are a very big deal.

  • Dale Amon

    I’ll inject a few numbers:

    1 Barrel = 159 liters, .16 m^3, 42 USGallons
    6 lb/USgal gasoline
    6.7 lb/USgal diesel
    7.3 lb/USgal bunker C

    From the article text:

    175 lb animal input 1.00
    38 lb oil .21
    7 lb gas .04
    7 lb minerals .04
    123 lb sterilized water .70

    The numbers will vary with the type of feedstock
    of course.

    From the description and picture, I
    would assume the raw output density
    to be more towards diesel than gasoline,
    so I estimate:

    42 * 6.7 = 281.4 lbs/barrel = 1340lb feedstock/gross barrel

    which at 85% efficiency gives 1576.47lb feedstock/net barrel

    The number I haven’t found yet is the percentage of diesel/gasoline in a barrel of crude oil.

  • wolfwalker

    I’m afraid I also have to take this with a grain of salt. The Discover article ran in May of this year, which means it was actually written a couple of months earlier. I’ve checked once or twice since then, and have seen absolutely _nothing_ beyond what was in the article. I haven’t even seen any certain evidence that the Carthage plant went on-line as scheduled.

    I want very much for this to be true, but right now I’m not hopeful.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    Dr Hlatsky commented on this shortly after the article appeared. You might wish to check with him, as he is involved with some aspects of organic chemistry and might be cognisant of the physical (chemical) processes involved. He can be contacted through borzoiblog.com.


  • dc

    wolfwalker, this article dated November 6 says the Missouri plant is just going online now (was originally scheduled for June or July this year as I recall) and a new plant in Colorado is at the planning stage.

  • M. Simon

    The problem with biomass is:

    1. Collecting it
    2. Hauling it

    Even short distance hauling of a mile or two are currently uneconomic as an energy source

  • Dale Amon

    I’ve supplied some numbers above. Show the calculation backing up your statement.

  • rkb

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    In the meanwhile, when calculating net energy produced, don’t forget to count the cost of trucking those turkey wastes away and doing something else with them. Also count in the current cost of accumulating them and managing hygiene in the process.

    Straightlining the projections onto a macroeconomic scale might be misleading at this point. But, what I do find exciting is that this is one concrete move towards the day when our energy production and its use is decentralized. THAT will have significant implications for freedom from the state!

  • The problem with this approach is that there is not enough biomass available concentrated at processing plants for it to account for more than a small fraction of our total energy needs. I get emails from readers of my futurepundit.com blog asking why I don’t write about it. Well, they built a plant at a turkey processing facility. Great, but as I’ve previously argued, there are not enough such facilities to matter.

  • Dale, How many agricultural processing plants generate 200 tons of agricultural waste per day? There are not that many people eating chicken or turkey or beef to generate enough waste. Most of the meat gets used. We don’t each individually eat enough food to generate enough waste concentrated at a few locations.

    Look at alcohol generated from corn as an example of why this won’t amount to much. It takes more energy to grow the corn than can be extracted as alcohol.

    Yes, there are lots of pieces of corn stalks and wheat stalks left in fields at the end of the season. But it would take a lot of energy to cart all that to a central processing plant. The advantage with the Con-Agra turkey plant is that the waste was already concentrated and its shipment is paid for by the revenue that comes from selling the turkey.

  • While this process may be able to yield usable energy in the form of synthetic petroleum, many here are making an implicit assumption that future energy use will not grow, and are badly underestimating the magnitude of energy we use now, at least intuitively.

    I think there’s some inherent psychological ceiling on “big” for most of us, and when numbers get really huge, beyond a certain point we may recognize that one thing is bigger than another but not really appreciate just how much bigger. (That’s why people play the lottery; they’re entranced by how “big” the payoff would be, without really recognizing how “big” the odds are against winning it.)

    The total energy we consume is well beyond “big”, and it’s continuing to rise. In fact, energy consumption has been growing at an exponential rate, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to stop. That’s despite drastic increases in efficiency. Between 1949 and 2000 the US approximately doubled the economic output it created per unit energy consumed, measured in constant dollars, but population rise and increased average wealth from rising prosperity between them more than offset that, and in 2000 the US consumed more than three times as much energy as it did in 1949.

    In the year 2000, DOE says the US consumed more than 98 quadrillion BTUs, i.e. (98.498 * 10^15 BTUs). Why this nation hasn’t started reporting those numbers in metric, I’ll never know. With 1055 joules per BTU and 31556736 seconds in a year that means an average power consumption of 3.29 terawatts, 3,290,000 megawatts. (That’s an average; our consumption isn’t actually level, and peak consumption is a lot higher.)

    I don’t have a comparable number for Europe but I bet it’s at least 2 terawatts. (EU members and candidates collectively have a lot more people than the US, but they don’t consume as much energy per capita.)

    It’s not a question of whether thermal depolymerization and other related recycling technologies can produce energy. It’s a question of the amount they can produce, and whether there are inherent ceilings on them, and how fast they can be ramped up. Up at the top of this thread someone talked about one of these plants operating at a rate of 100 KW. To generate the energy used by the US in 2000, it would take 32,900,000 plants generating 100KW each.

    My thumbnail number is that an energy source has to reach about 1% before it becomes sufficiently important economically to become politically important. Current important sources are coal (23%), gas (20%), oil (12%), nuclear (8%), wood and waste (3%) and hydro (3%).

    Based the 2000 numbers, 1% of the energy we consume would 32.9 gigawatts, which would represent 329,000 conversion facilities each of which generated 100 KW.

    Do you really think that’s going to happen any time soon? Dozens, unquestionably. Hundreds, very likely. Tens of thousands? Highly unlikely.

    But to totally offset US energy imports, that’s not remotely enough. In 2000, the US imported about 29% of its energy, mostly from Canada, Mexico and Venezuala. The actual figure was 28.5 quadrillion BTUs, which turns out to be about 953 gigawatts, or 9,530,000 100KW conversion plants.

    I think the basic problem here is that people don’t have any appreciation for the kind of scale we’re dealing with. You can’t bail out an ocean with a teacup. You can’t even do it with 1000 teacups.

    It’s a question of scaling. It won’t ever scale up to the point where it reaches 1%, to where it begins to have political consequences. (And even if it could, it isn’t going to do so soon enough to affect the war.)

    There are dozens, hundreds, of ways of generating energy, but only a small number of sources which can provide energy in the quantities needed to make any difference. Looking into the future I only see four entirely new ones which could even theoretically be used which were potentially large enough to make a difference: core taps, solar power satellites, fusion, and direct conversion of mass to energy. Of those, the only ones which are technologically within reach are core taps and solar power satellites, but both of those will require major advances in the state of the art to become practical. I think core taps are probably more practical, but I don’t expect either of them to make any difference for the next thirty years.

    Fusion hasn’t yet reached the point where it generates more power than it consumes, and I’m pretty sure that even if it does it won’t end up being practical because the capital cost per unit energy generation capacity will be absurd. And direct conversion of mass requires a theoretical breakthrough.

    But things like thermal depolymerization (which, at its most fundamental level, is a form of “biomass” conversion, which is to say a very indirect form of solar power) can’t scale up to the magnitudes required to really make an impact. They work, and they can generate “big” amounts of energy, but not remotely big enough.

  • RB

    Scientists are busy at work, teaching microorganisms how to digest and ferment the cellulose in biomass to ethanol, methanol, methane, and other carbon based energy sources.

    Biomass utilization is likely to remain decentralized, and less lucrative than big oil, big gas, and big coal.

    That does not mean it cannot play an important role in the overall energy strategy. It can be huge, when the many small decentralized facilities are added up.

    In the energy ecosystem, think of the biomass energy developers as the scavengers. They will operate on a small margin and have to keep a low overhead.

  • Steve, I think you have a typo. Oil provides a lot more than 12% of the world’s energy.

  • By the way, a “core tap” is more or less a deliberately-created geothermal energy source. You drill a hole deep enough to reach the heat of the mantle, reinforce the hole, and then pump water down into it and run the resulting steam through a turbine. It has to be placed where the crust is relatively thin, next to a major source of fresh water, and basically that means next to the lower part of a major river. The American midwest along the Missippi and Ohio rivers would be pretty good places for such things.

    The hole that’s drilled has to be a lot wider than the ones they drill now for oil and gas, and it also has to go a lot deeper (at least 10 km, but we won’t really know for sure until the first pilot project), and it has to be reinforced to hold the pressure of the steam. So there would have to be significant improvements in drilling technology, but I think that’s easy compared to the technological and economic problems facing solar satellites or fusion.

    And it’s pretty much inexhaustible, and there are no particularly obvious limits on the number of them which could be built; there’s no upper limit akin to a finite supply of turkey guts. There’s a pollution problem relating to release of sulfur compounds dissolved in the steam but that can be dealt with using current technology which is already used to scrub sulfur out of the waste gas in coal plants.

    However, I don’t think anyone is working on it. Drilling holes that deep and wide is a tough problem, and it might take advances in materials science to figure out how to reinforce the hole so it didn’t blow out from the steam pressure. That said, I think it’s a hugely difficult challenge, but nonetheless easier than solar satellites.

  • Randall, my figures were for the US. They came from a chart on this page:


    On the other hand, I just found better numbers which seem to contradict that chart, here:


    That latter chart shows the US consuming 98.942 quadrillion BTUs in 2000, of which petroleum produced 38.404 quadrillion BTUs.

  • dc

    Steven, the 100kW figure above was just an example. As the Discover article says, this pilot plant is expected to produce 600 barrels of high-grade oil a day. In 2000 the US was importing about 11.5 million barrels of crude oil a day so to get 1% of that from thermal depolymerization you would only need about 180 such plants.

  • DC, There are not 100 big turkey or even chicken processing plants. The processing plants in agriculture are huge and few in number.

    Also, the amount of oil being imported is increasing as domestic demand rises and domestic production declines.

    Steve, 40% of energy coming from oil is closer to the ballpark I expected for the US. For the world as a whole the percentage is higher. The US and China are outliers in terms of the high percentage of energy they get from coal. Coal production in China has been soaring at a mind-boggling rate.

  • dc

    Randall, it looks like there must be at least 180 large poultry processing plants from this link. And that’s just poultry, this process will apparently take anything. Another potential source is the billion tons of animal excrement produced every year, a lot of which is concentrated in large factory farms. But I’m not sure what the energy density of bullsh*t is. 🙂

  • Dale Amon

    back40. I read the Eurekalert article and it has very little to do with this process. Just to give you an idea of how silly the numbers look if you work from that article:

    196,000 pounds plant material per 1 gallon gasoline.

    So given numbers I supplied earlier, 1 gallon of gasoline weighs 6 pounds. Gasoline is mostly C and H; C12 should predominate as I believe photosynthesis prefers it over C13. The Hydrogen will be almost entirely H1. So to a first order of approximation, that 6 pound gallon of gasoline is 6 pounds of carbon.

    Now at 196,000 pounds plant matter to 1 gallon of gasoline, we get a BOTE estimate that plant matter contains .003% carbon.

    I think the absurdity of that number is enough to reject the applicability of the article you linked to.

  • Dale Amon

    Randall. I’m primarily interested in transport fuel; as I noted much earlier, I do not see petroleum as a long term source of baseline electrical load. A process like this simply replaces the hard to deal with problems of the fusion/hydrogen economy by letting us stay with a higher energy density fuel for which infrastructure already exists. The point is, we are not going to run out of fuel for the family SUV. We still have to worry about the electrical generating facilities.

  • Dale Amon

    Steven. You gave very good answers to a different question than I am answering. I am talking about transportation fuels. Core taps don’t solve it; Geosats don’t solve it; fusion power plants don’t solve it. There has been talk for decades about the Hydrogen economy but it just isn’t happening. It is much easier to replace baseline power generation with any of the big technologies you discussed (or the ones I favour like Geosats) or more likely a combination of many things. But you still need something to put in the tank. Gasoline is damn near an ideal substance. If it hadn’t existed we’d have had to invent it. If we build 10,000 of your coretaps, one of the things they will do is help process biomass into gasoline for transport.

    I at one point thought the Hydrogen economy was a neat idea. As I’ve grown as a businessman as well as a technology loving engineer, I’ve come to see that the capital turnover required for it is just not going to happen except under exceedingly dire circumstances. It is a lovely propellant mass for spaceship but pretty gawdawful fuel for an MGB.

    One of the problems with these comment discussions is that no one pays attention to what you say.

  • Dale Amon

    dc. Thanks for saying something more on topic. If that plant is turning out 600 barrels of diesel fuel per day, that is 27,000 gallons/day. It is 219,000 barrels or 9,855,000 gallons per year. In the old Jeep Cherokee I owned before moving to Europe (the real Jeep Truck chassis one, not the yuppie bus they make now) that was, at about 15mpg, 147,825,000 miles. Assuming an average driver doing 10,000 miles a year, that is enough to keep 14782 Jeep Cherokees in fuel forever. Assuming they switch to diesel of course…

    I’m sure someone will let me know if I missed a decimal point somewhere 🙂

  • Dale Amon

    Just to add to that. Even if people drive 20,000 miles per year in their Cherokees, that is still 7000+ vehicles spoken for. The town I grew up in had 9000 total people. So one such plant could have fueled every car in town in perpetuity.

  • Dale, Regard the Eurekalert article: You have to separate out what he says when talking about plant matter that died millions of years ago versus plant matter today. That ratio refers to particular types of plant matter under particular conditions that eventually can produce fossil fuels. Only a very very small portion of plant matter becomes fossil fuels. Obviously, the conversion ratio of plant matter grown today into hydrocarbon fuels today can be much higher.

    But then Dukes from U Utah did calculations on how much biomass we’d need to harness to satisfy the world’s 1997 energy needs and made the claim that it would take over a fifth of the world’s land plant biomass to provide the same amount of energy.

  • BTW, manure is already partially digested and probably also has water added and therefore will have a lower energy content than raw plant matter.

    Also, a lot of those meat processing plants are smaller facilities. There just are not that many animal processing plants that are producing hundreds of tons of animal parts waste per day.

  • Dale Amon

    Randall. You absolutely refuse to stick to the point I am debating, no matter how many times I reiterate it. I don’t give a damn how much plant material it takes to provide the global baseload electrical needs. I am only discussing the US transportation fuel requirements, something that will have to be dealt with no matter what solution you find for baseload electrical power generation.

    I would say that the water in a pound of cowplop is probably less than there is a pound of cow and it is largely carbon. The exact numbers can be argued but I doubt the whole range of carbon content per pound of various possible inputs varies over more than two orders of magnitude, if that.

  • Michael Stamps

    It appears to me that a major application would be using them as the replacement for landfills. Since they can make use of many types of feedstock (both biological like garbage and other materials like plastics) they seem to me to be a perfect tool to help eliminate the growing garbage problem and maybe the septic problem.

    I remember pictures of acres upon acres of old tires catching fire. As I understand it tires work very well with this system since they are dry.

    Has there been any mention of the minimum size of the facility? How small/cheap could one be made once all the kinks are ironed out of the system?

    If they can be made small enough (say able to fit on a tractor trailer) they could be used in a co-op mode by farmers who could take turns taking their waste products and turning them into something usefull. Rent one for a weekend and clean out the stables sort of thing.

    Don’t think of it as the final answer to our energy needs but as the ultimate in recycling.

  • dc

    Michael, the Discover article says “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.”

  • dc

    … Discover article says “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”.

  • Dale, I guess I do not understand the reason for your focus on US ground energy transportation needs is so important in your mind. The US uses about a quarter of the world’s energy and only part of that is used on ground transportation. The US portion of world energy usage is going to decline as China grows. Also, ground transportation is just one portion of total US usage.

    Petroleum makes up less than half of US fossil fuel usage and less than 40% of total US energy usage. Not all petroleum used in the US is used for ground transportation. Steve’s links have useful info in this regard. See the last row here.

    I don’t buy the argument made in some quarters that we gain much in US national security if the US is less dependent on foreign energy sources. As I see it, the problem is that too much money flows into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. What we need is a very large world-wide decrease in the demand for Middle Eastern oil. To accomplish that decrease in demand for Middle Eastern oil would require the development of energy technologies that would be cheap enough to be used around the world.

    Still, I think it is great that biomass waste processing technology is advancing. It will help to some extent while at the same time reducing waste disposal problems. I just think that there is not enough high-energy content biomass to scale to a really high level of oil production. A lot of biowaste has less energy content because the carbon is more oxidized and diluted as well as more widely distributed (note they started at a turkey plant rather than a trash dump).

    The bigger solutions to our energy problems lie in other technologies.

  • (cackle)

    Okay; I made it through the comments all the way to Den Bluste’s ejaculation, and I’m now convinced:

    We’re all doomed, and we’d better just give up.

  • Jacob

    For transportation fuel you can liquefy or gasify coal. No problem in that, coal is plentyful, the technology available. The only problem is the price. When oil gets really scarce, i.e. expensive, you fall back on coal.
    Maybe thermal depolymerization can be done to coal too.
    No need to be over alarmed about energy, there is plenty of energy (in current known forms) for several hundreds of years. That is not, by far the biggest danger humanity faces.

  • ed


    Core Tap or HDR Geothermal

    So why can’t you have a closed system based on pipes? Additionally why can’t you use currently oil drilling technology and drill horizontal pathways for the insertion of heat transfering pipes. So the ability to absorb energy from a vertical well might be limited, why can’t the well be as long horizontally as it is vertically? Modern oil drillheads are capable of drilling 90 degrees (or more) off axis. If you drilled 4-5km down and then drilled a continuous “racetrack” then lined it with a heat transfering pipe for pressurised water, wouldn’t that be pretty efficient?



  • Just a thought I wanted to inject in this conversation. Several people have said that anything carbon based can be run through TDP. This isn’t entirely true. What TDP does is it takes long-chain hydrocarbons and polymers and breaks them down into shorter-chain hydrocarbons. For example, if the carbon were tied up as CO2, TDP would be almost useless for extracting any light hydrocarbons.

    So, it appears that TDP is best suited for breaking up things like plant and animal processing wastes (like bones, guts, plant husks, etc.), animal and human fecal matter (and sewage), some plastics, and also recycled motor oil (if you can either remove any metal, or make the process tolerante of metal content in the oil). It could also process tar, tar-sands, coal, and many other similar fuel sources. I’m not sure how it woudl stack up against other current processes for converting those to liquid fuel form, but it seems like it should do fairly well.

    As Dale pointed out, this would be mostly used for transportation energy, as opposed to fixed energy. While there are many interesting potential fixed-plant ideas that have been mentioned, most of these do not directly answer the need of transportation. Hydrocarbons whether run through a reformer/fuel-cell, an internal combustion engine, or a hybrid gas/electric motor will probably be much cheaper than hydrogen or battery powered for a long, long time. It also won’t require as much changes in
    fundamental infrastructure (the addition of thousands of TDP plants at various municipal waste plants, veggie/meat packing facilities, etc are dual-use since they also reduce the cost of disposal/treatment of those wastes) as a hydrogen economy would.

    As for if such a biomass thing would work for transportation, using the numbers provided above, only about: 10M barrels/day * ~700kg waste/barrel, comes out to 7billion kg/day. That comes out to
    about 50lbs/person/day. With the liberal use of hybrid gas/electric vehicles, we may be able to half that to 25lb/person/day. Now, about 10-20% of that
    could come from reprocessed fecal matter. If you add in all the additional waste sources per person per day (such as plastics consumed, veggie or meat processing wastes used to produce the food for that person, and farmland wastes), one could likely come up with a substantial fraction of that 25lb/person/day even without tapping coal or other nonrenewables for conversion.

    It may be possible to use genetically engineered, ultra-fast growing plants to provide the balance of the required feedstock for this process. The nice thing about this is that the transportation fuel costs per person per day are unlikely to increase much compared to US consumption rates. Most countries will likely have significantly lower rates (due to being more centralized), so this should be something that could be reasonably scalable.

    Anyhow, that’s enough of a SWAG, but I just wanted to give some food for thought (or at least toss some gas on the fire).

    ~Jon Goff

  • The comment which got me all excited was this one:

    “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.”

    Looks like there’s a use for liberals and Democrats after all. I LIKE the idea of my Ford truck’s V8 running on 93-octane Kennedy-Schumer-Feinstein Premium.

    Although the gas quotient would be a lot higher if we used politicians…

  • greg m

    Some calculations of “carbon usage” claimed by Dukes leading to the 1/5 plant land usage

    3,650,000,000 bbls imported oil yearly usa
    (365 * 10 million imported daily)

    97 million billion pounds carbon used yearly according to Dukes =

    9.7 e16 lbs carbon used each year

    3.65 e9 bbls imported usa each year

    if each bbl weighs a ton (most unlikely), then
    weight of imported oil = 7.30 e12 lbs

    weight of oil imported each day/ weight of carbon use claimed by Dukes =

    7.3 e12/ 9.7 e16 =

    7.5 e -5

    It appears Dukes numbers are bit exagerrated.

  • Enormous environmental pressure on coal power producers has created a “clean coal initiative” on which oil companies and CWT can capitalize. The TDP will be used to clean (sulfur, mercury) coal prior to combustion, similar to the way the gas industry conditions its gas. Valuable high quality gases (methane, propane) and oils (naphtha, olefins) will be extracted from the coal by the TDP. The coal companies will receive a higher Btu valued product due to the TDP process. …In addition, through reforming, at least 50% of the sulfur content is driven into the gas (H2S), where it is captured and can be sold. The reduced sulfur content and higher Btu value will reduce expensive emission stack cleanup technology (scrubbers) and increase coal reserve utilization. Industry: Coal

  • Alex F

    The comments here remind me of the old pump-n-dump stock messages boards of the bubble era.

    Ah, the memories. . .

  • Kevin K

    I have a lot of thoughts on the above exchanges. However, what I am most interested at this time, is why I can’t find any current discussion on this topic.

    Like…are there any reports as to the current success/failure regarding the claims of TDP at the Con Agra plant?

    August 22, 2004

  • MarkB

    I am kind of curious to see what happens, as well. I have been following this for a while and it sounds like CWT is expanding rather slowly. They had a rather irritating delay when the welding on several cylinders turned out to be subpar, but seem to be back on track now. The problem is that their feed stock may be cheap now, but when a significant amount of these plants start operating the supply and demand equation is going to rear its ugly head. The one “good” thing, from their point of view, is that Mad Cow is changing the way offal is being used. As the article below states, they are in production, but not really up to speed yet.