a romatic night by the fire, tossing in hamburger
May 18, 2004 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Renewable energy: thinking outside the (clamshell) box. The US Dept. of Agriculture has given notice that funds are available for "developing renewable energy systems from the use of diseased livestock as a process raw material for the energy source." As in, all the cattle killed during December's Mad Cow Disease scare. Because "traditional rendering processes were determined not to effectively deactivate the infectivity of prions."
posted by bendybendy (25 comments total)

 
soylent fuel is people!
posted by VulcanMike at 6:29 AM on May 18, 2004


They did this in the UK in 2000 following the mad cow scare. Makes sense.

Incidentally, that has to among the filthiest FPP titles ever.
posted by biffa at 6:36 AM on May 18, 2004


Burning cows = a "renewable energy system" ?
posted by troutfishing at 6:37 AM on May 18, 2004


I wonder if this would be a good application for thermal depolymerization. (mefi thread on the process)
posted by Nothing at 7:03 AM on May 18, 2004


It's the same idea as the turkey parts schemes we've discussed before. Prions are hard to destroy, but thermal desorption (or pyrolysis, but that produces less energy) could (probably) do the job. They're trying to find a cheaper alternative to incineration.

The traditional alternative is to burn the carcasses, as the British had to do in 2001 with the foot and mouth disease (which isn't a prion disease, but). It's not clear that open-pit combustion would be entirely effective with prions. Inseatd you need to use a much more expensive HT incinerator process. That's really expensive, hence the search for alternatives
posted by bonehead at 7:06 AM on May 18, 2004


Missiles into ourter space.
posted by Witty at 7:24 AM on May 18, 2004


or outer... whichever.
posted by Witty at 7:25 AM on May 18, 2004


Burning cows = a "renewable energy system" ?

Wellll, technically they are biomass, but I guess this really falls into the waste to energy side of things which is contentiously classified as renewable in some places. It's better than burning them in a field, if it displaces fossil fuel combustion all the better, if it just displaces burning other biomass then at least it might help out the economics of bioenergy use.
posted by biffa at 7:29 AM on May 18, 2004


I wonder if prions would make it through the Windhexe?

Burning cows = a "renewable energy system" ?

I guess cows are renewable ;) but if the inputs needed to raise them are not, that questions whether or not the system itself is renewable.
posted by carter at 7:33 AM on May 18, 2004


A well-done energy supply is rare.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:36 AM on May 18, 2004


A untested solution would be using http://www.esrla.com/brazil/frame.htm Black Soldier Fly maggots.
The resulting maggot fecal material could be fed to worms. (Worms use things like anthrax as food)

Prions don't break down w/heat until the heat gets above 500 deg, so the best idea to date is thermal de-polymerization, if you want to use heat.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:38 AM on May 18, 2004


Maggot Fecal Material! Maggot Fecal Material!!!

You said it first.
posted by dfowler at 7:40 AM on May 18, 2004


prions are some scary little things. they break all the rules - proteins that can change other proteins, just by being near them. no DNA change involved, just a change in conformation that occurs spontaneously and apparently irreversibly. they're insoluble in water, so they just screw the brain all up once they get in - the enzymes that would normally break them down can't work on the insoluble prions. traditional preservative methods, like formaldehyde treatment, actually make the prions more dangerous rather than deactivating them.

i do find it sort of funny in a way that we now have an official government-funded plan to harness the power of the mad cow. it just seems like something out of a bad made-for-TV sci-fi movie.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:31 AM on May 18, 2004


In a mad mad world: fried food oil fueling the cars, hamburgers lighting your drive thru vegetarian meal.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:00 AM on May 18, 2004


The total amount of oil from a cow might be what.. a barrel of oil? And there are 35 million cattle (last paragraph) killed in the USA each year. And we consume 18 million barrels a day .. so that would be 1/2 of 1 percent of our energy needs, assuming 1 cow = 1 barrel.
posted by stbalbach at 9:24 AM on May 18, 2004


There's a scale used in the decontamination industry:

1. Lipid-containing viruses (eg HIV)
2. Vegetative Bacteria
3. Richettgia, chlamydiae
4. Fungi
5. Non-lipid containing viruses (eg Hep-A)
6. Tuberculosis
7. Bacterial Spores (eg Anthrax)
8. Prions

That's in order of increasing hardiness (esp. for chemical attack). Prions are among the hardiest infective agents known. They survive autoclaving (which the the medical ne plus ultra for sterilization), chemical sterilization (prions can "survive" bleach, peroxide, even chlorine). It's not at all clear that biological treatment (maggots) would have any effect on them. Mechanical methods (the vortex system mentioned above) would certainly be ineffective. The only destruction method that reliably works is high-temperature incineration.

Were there to be a major outbreak of BSE or scrapie or some other prion wasting disease, disposal of the infected animal parts would be a major (billions) effort. Today, the only options would be incineration or disposal to sealed landfill, and no politician wants to touch either of those alternatives.
posted by bonehead at 9:31 AM on May 18, 2004


stbalbach --- you've nailed it. The point isn't so much to generate fuel, though that's a nice side effect, but to dispose of a particularly nasty biomedical waste. From that standpoint, the technology doesn't have to be cheaper than drilling oil, just cheaper than running an incinerator.

The other angle that's being worked here is public acceptance. That's a major concern---often there are many technologies which will do the job, but none of them will fly politically. Incineration, which can be provably clean when done right, is a particularly hard sell because when it's done wrong---cheaply---incineration can be worse that the original mess (PAH/chloro-dioxin production). There are several sites in Canada where clean-up has been delayed by years of even decades because local residents didn't like the idea of living next to (a provably clean) incinerator.
posted by bonehead at 9:42 AM on May 18, 2004


The total amount of oil from a cow might be what.. a barrel of oil? And there are 35 million cattle (last paragraph) killed in the USA each year. And we consume 18 million barrels a day .. so that would be 1/2 of 1 percent of our energy needs, assuming 1 cow = 1 barrel.

You are forgetting the many barrels of oil required to "produce" a cow in the first place, from fertilizers to feed to diesel fuel for heating their barn/taking them to slaughter. Here is a decent article on the subject, and this page, despite being off-topic, has great links on the topic if you scroll down a wee bit. Unless we're only going to burn grass-fed organic hippie cows, we're basically burning five barrels of oil in order to harness one barrels' worth of energy.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:58 AM on May 18, 2004


Oops. The second link.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:59 AM on May 18, 2004


On quibble with the second link, which basically throws out the grass-fed beef argument because:

"There's a finite amount of grass-fed beef to go around."

Well, simply untrue. It would be possible for the entire USA to be %100 grass fed and keep the same levels of production. The only diffrence being, beef would cost more. But that's ok because that represents the true cost of beef, unlike the cheap grain-fed beef we have now. Grass-fed is a solution that works.
posted by stbalbach at 11:59 AM on May 18, 2004


It's not at all clear that biological treatment (maggots) would have any effect on them.

That is why research should be done. The suspected answer is "No", but like sonofusion or even now cold fusion, the answer might be 'yes'

The conversion of the cow into light crude would work, so there is a known answer.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:29 PM on May 18, 2004


A well-done energy supply is rare. - Civil_Disobedient

oh...ow.
posted by dejah420 at 2:49 PM on May 18, 2004


Ignatius: Potentially infected cows represent a stranded cost. They're have to be out of the food chain, burning them for energy use at least gives them some value.
posted by biffa at 3:28 PM on May 18, 2004


Oh, I know.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 3:39 PM on May 18, 2004


Any reason we can't just pump the cows into the earth's mantle? I should imagine lava is hot enough to destroy prions.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:44 AM on May 21, 2004


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