AR-News: (US) Anything into Oil

Elizabeth Forel elizforel at
Mon Aug 4 07:47:45 EDT 2003

----- Forwarded Message -----

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 manufacturing. 
  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

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
  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
  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 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
  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. 


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 infrastructure." 
  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 electricity-generating
— B.L. 

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
— B.L. 


To learn more about the thermal depolymerization process, visit Changing
World Technologies' Web site: 

A primer on the natural carbon cycle can be found at 

© Copyright 2003 The Walt Disney Company. Back to Homepage.

More information about the AR-News mailing list