Green Technologies: all waste becomes clean oil & minerals


Richard Moore

This seems like a very valuable breakthrough, from 
Changing World Technologies, Inc. 

However it doesn't, by itself, help with global warming.

If only they could add more steps to their process, and 
produce hydrogen, or somehow electricity, without
releasing greenhouse gases. One thing they don't seem
to have tapped yet are organic processes (enzymes
or whatever).



No More Waste, No More Pollution, Plenty of Oil 

Brad Lemley 

[This article is reprinted from Discover Magazine , Vol. 24,
No. 5, 5 May 2003]

In an industrial park in Philadelphia sits a new machine that
can change almost anything into oil. Really. "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.

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

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

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."

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."

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

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.