Thermal Depolymerization

Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Shaggy, Feb 27, 2004.

  1. Shaggy

    Shaggy 3/4 ton status

    Dec 15, 2000
    Likes Received:
    Los Banos, CA
    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
    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 toxic."
    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." à
    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 oil refining.
    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.
  2. landsmasher

    landsmasher 1/2 ton status

    Mar 13, 2002
    Likes Received:
    California, The Blow Me State
    Hmmmm, sounds good to me... As long as the oil companies don't buy the patent out and kill the idea. Is there a name for the company? Can you buy stock in it?
  3. tRustyK5

    tRustyK5 Big meanie Staff Member Super Moderator GMOTM Winner Author

    Jul 23, 2000
    Likes Received:
    E-town baby!
    That is pretty cool, I hope it's not smoke and mirrors though.

  4. chevyfumes

    chevyfumes Court jester Premium Member

    Feb 24, 2000
    Likes Received:
    Watch for the muzzleflash!
    I ate a turkey sandwich while reading that.... /forums/images/graemlins/thumb.gifHope it's for real, where did you get it??? /forums/images/graemlins/ears.gif
  5. daleearnhardt01

    daleearnhardt01 1/2 ton status

    Aug 29, 2002
    Likes Received:
    Richmond, VA
    Sounds interesting, hope its true. /forums/images/graemlins/thumb.gif /forums/images/graemlins/thumb.gif
  6. Seventy4Blazer

    Seventy4Blazer 3/4 ton status

    Apr 21, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Escondido, CA
    i hope it is true, but remember, with every plsu there is a minus. hope for the best, expect the worst.
  7. Shaggy

    Shaggy 3/4 ton status

    Dec 15, 2000
    Likes Received:
    Los Banos, CA
    From what research I've done on it, it appears to be the real deal.

    Check this out...

    I have a fair amount of info on it at this point, I tend to be pretty skeptical of this stuff too but it now appears that they are actually selling the oil to a local power plant for use in electricity generation.

    I can't help but hope that this may be the first step in a device similar to the "Mr.Fusion" from "Back to the Future II". /forums/images/graemlins/thumb.gif Go out to your car in the morning and dump all your garbage from the day before into the trunk, then drive to work on the energy it produces. /forums/images/graemlins/woot.gif
  8. HarryH3

    HarryH3 1 ton status Author

    May 31, 2000
    Likes Received:
    Georgetown, TX
    I found many links to the story, but none seem to be posted on the web sites of reputable news organizations. /forums/images/graemlins/frown.gif I've searched at and None of them have any matches. /forums/images/graemlins/confused.gif
  9. chevyfumes

    chevyfumes Court jester Premium Member

    Feb 24, 2000
    Likes Received:
    Watch for the muzzleflash!
    I just searched and found nothing so thats a good thing... /forums/images/graemlins/thinking.gif
  10. k20

    k20 3/4 ton status

    Sep 9, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Mineral Springs, NC

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