Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there may be an elegant solution on the horizon to the gigantic problem of garbage—and not just the kind that gets dumped in landfills, but sewage, too, along with agricultural wastes, used tires, and just about everything else. More good news: we might get to reduce dependence on foreign oil and pay less for gasoline in the process. The bad news? Forget about those electric cars or increased fuel efficiency; abandon hope of seeing your city skyline again—this solution, if it works, will keep internal combustion engines running forever.
What many investors are hoping will be the Next Big Thing is a technology called the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP for short. This patented process is being developed by Changing World Technologies of West Hempstead, New York, with its first full-scale plant already in operation in Carthage, Missouri. The idea behind TDP is not new—in fact, it’s millions of years old. Take organic matter, subject it to heat and pressure, and eventually you get oil. Of course in nature, “eventually” is usually an inconvenient number of millennia; TDP shortens that time to hours, if you can believe that.
A Well-Oiled Machine
TDP is a surprisingly straightforward five-step process. First, raw materials are fed into an industrial-grade grinder where they’re chopped up into extremely small bits and mixed with water. The mixture is then subjected to heat and pressure, breaking molecular bonds and reducing the material to simpler components in as little as 15 minutes. The next step is reducing the pressure dramatically to drive off the water; in the process, some useful minerals such as calcium and magnesium settle out as a valuable byproduct. The remaining slurry is sent into a second reactor, which uses even higher temperatures to produce a hydrocarbon mixture. Finally, a distillation step divides the hydrocarbons into vaporous gas (a mixture of methane, propane, and butane), liquid oil (similar to a mixture of gasoline and motor oil), and powdered carbon.
All that to say: garbage in, (black) gold out. The process produces no waste materials, unless you count water, which can be recycled in the system. The gas can be used to produce heat for the machine itself; oil can be sent to refineries to be made into a variety of useful products; carbon can be turned into everything from water filters to toner cartridges; and the remaining minerals can be used as fertilizer.
Virtually any organic material can be fed into a TDP apparatus. By making adjustments to the combinations of temperature, pressure, and cooking times, various input products (referred to as feedstock) can produce a wide range of output products; the proportions of, say, gas to oil to carbon will depend on the composition of the feedstock. The first fully operational TDP system is being used to recycle the waste at a turkey processing plant. All the turkey parts that aren’t used as meat—skin, bones, feathers, and so on—are fed into the machine, thus solving a serious waste problem (up to 200 tons per day) while creating commercially valuable products. But TDP can also process discarded computers, tires (even steel-belted radials), plastic bottles, agricultural waste, municipal garbage…you name it. In fact, the city of Philadelphia is hoping to use TDP to convert the sludge that comes out of its sewage treatment plants into oil, which will later be used to generate electricity.
Nothing is too messy or too scary for TDP to handle. It can make clean, safe materials out of nearly anything. Even medical wastes, dioxins, and other biohazardous materials. Even anthrax, for crying out loud. Apparently the only kind of material this system can’t handle is nuclear waste—I guess you can’t have everything.
Pouring Oil on Troubled Water
Thermal depolymerization is just now coming into commercial use, though similar processes have been known for decades. The problem was that they were always too expensive to operate; it cost more for the fuel to decompose the garbage than the resulting materials were worth. The inventors of TDP claim that it is highly energy-efficient—better than 85% in most cases. If that is true, and if it continues to be true on a large scale, then TDP may eventually be able to produce oil more cheaply than drilling, and get rid of garbage as a convenient side-effect—or vice-versa, if you prefer.
As fantastic as TDP sounds, the process does have its critics. Some engineers have expressed skepticism that the energy efficiency could be even close to what Changing World Technologies claims. Even supposing that it were, the oil needs of the United States are currently so massive that if all the agricultural waste in the country were processed into oil, it would still be just a drop in the bucket (so to speak). In other words, so the argument goes, the process holds more promise as a method of recycling and waste reduction than it does as a source of fuel.
The more optimistic viewpoint is that if TDP comes into widespread use, we won’t run out of oil as long as we have garbage. But that also means there will be less incentive to reduce oil consumption or seek out cleaner alternative power sources. Ah, but I suppose every silver lining must have its cloud. —Joe Kissell
This article was featured in the Carnival of Cars on June 2, 2006.
To get even more information straight from the turkey’s mouth, see the Changing World Technologies home page. In May of 2004, Renewable Environmental Solutions (a joint venture of Changing World Technologies and ConAgra Foods) announced that its first commercial plant in Carthage, Missouri is selling 100-200 barrels of oil per day, produced from turkey by-products.
There are hundreds of articles about thermal depolymerization on the Web. Here are some samples:
- Is this the ultimate recycler? in The Guardian
- Killing germs, reducing waste, making oil: TDP might be the next big thing by Andrew Kantor in USA Today
- Anything Into Oil (paid subscription or per-article fee required) in the May 2003 issue of Discover
- Two different articles (scroll down) can be found on the Montana Associated Technology Roundtables site: “Garbage Into Oil – How to turn garbage into fuel” by Tracy Staedter (Technology Review) and “Entrepreneur’s plants cook wastes into oil” by Bill Bergstrom (Associated Press).
- Garbage Into Oil (free membership required) on MIT’s Technology Review Web site includes an animation of the thermal depolymerization process.
- Thermal depolymerization in the Wikipedia
For an example of skeptical reactions to TDP claims, read Matt Savinar’s article Life After the Oil Crash. Matt points out that TDP alone, even in a best-case scenario, addresses only a tiny fraction of America’s energy needs.