change the world
April 16, 2003 11:12 AM   Subscribe

If this technology works as advertised, supported by Warren Buffet, ConAgra, CIA and the US Govt, our foreign oil dependency may be over in our lifetime. In fact, scarcity of oil may be a thing of the past as everything from municipal trash to human waste to grass clippings to old computers to ButterBall Turkeys can be reduced to only fuel-grade oil, fuel-grade gas, fertilizer minerals, pure carbon dust and clean water with no waste product or pollution. It will Change The World.
posted by stbalbach (47 comments total)
Allow me to say, "Soylent Black is people!!!!"

Now that I have that out of my system I say go full steam ahead. This could put an end to the funeral home business, but I'm dreaming.

However, these words worried me: "infectious medical waste, oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores"
posted by ?! at 11:21 AM on April 16, 2003

Ok, I should have looked at the picture. Make that "Soylent Tan is people!!!"
posted by ?! at 11:23 AM on April 16, 2003

This has been around for years. It's called pyrolysis, and it led to one of the funniest openings to a news story I've ever seen (from New Scientist in 1999):

"I'm trying as hard as I can, Captain," exclaims Scotty, the strain etching lines in his forehead. "I can't give you any more!" But unlike Star Trek's Enterprise, future spacecraft might use a less savoury energy supply than Scotty's beloved dilithium crystals: human waste.

Full article here.
posted by ptermit at 11:26 AM on April 16, 2003

That first article sure makes it sound incredible. $15 a barrel isn't the best price though. Does the carbon powder offset that price? I'd assume that they can MAKE money by taking people's waste too.

The technology looks cool, but I'd really like to see an economist take a whack at it. If it's that good, why hasn't everybody invested in it? Just because the Oil industry is guaranteed to screw them?
posted by zekinskia at 11:36 AM on April 16, 2003

It's not pyrolysis (see comparison chart). It's called TDP
posted by stbalbach at 11:39 AM on April 16, 2003

This could be good in the sense that it will lower prices of oil and reduce garbage -- but it could be scary in the fact that it will only encourage our dependency on carbon-based fuels.

In some ways, I'd like to see carbon fuel supply go to the point where we are forced to resort to fully develop alternative energy like fuel cells, liquid gas, solar power.
posted by superchicken at 11:51 AM on April 16, 2003

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

i love when life catches up to scifi.

Haunui - death stills - where the Fremen toss the dead bodies to reclaim the water.
posted by th3ph17 at 11:55 AM on April 16, 2003

Maybe I read too quickly, or am simply out of it, but how is the oil produced in this process different from the oil that we currently use, which results in pollution? Getting away from extraction of non-renewable in-the-ground oil sources and concentrated production, in and of themselves, seem like worthy goals. But I'm not clear where the environmental friendliness comes in.
posted by claxton6 at 11:58 AM on April 16, 2003

stbalbach: It sure looks like a pyrolytic process to me, even though they've given it a snazzy new name.(TM) Their comparison chart also sets up pyrolysis as a straw man -- pyrolysis can handle liquids, and you can get pretty uniform products, IIRC. So it seems like fancy pyrolysis to me, unless you can tell me what I'm missing, of course...
posted by ptermit at 11:59 AM on April 16, 2003

Will this be like other co-generation deals where the power company pays for excess contributed back to the grid. Except that we're generating #2? Then I'm a rich man!
posted by billsaysthis at 11:59 AM on April 16, 2003

ptermit, you seem to take that pretty personal. don't like hearing you might be wrong? here are the "disadvantages" take from stbalbach's link

Overall cost is substantial, process is capital intensive and some by-products may have limited or no value. The oil product is generally high in tar and asphalt components with low viscosity.  Both pyrolysis and gasification have poor heat transfer properties and consequently do not heat evenly.  Therefore, process products vary greatly.  There are a high number of components with low quantities available for recovery.

so let's see...some by-products may have limited or no value...oil product is high in tar...process products vary greatly (and i'm assuming they mean per cycle, same material...not per differing material)....and low quantities available for recovery.

so i wouldn't say pyrolysis is a straw man...they're simply saying how they're better than everybody else pretty much across the board.

it's the same idea, but a much better version. it even says in the article that it's been around for quite some time, but it's certainly not pyrolysis...pyrolysis is one of the "do everything in one step" versions that TDP improves upon.
posted by taumeson at 12:32 PM on April 16, 2003

claxton6 -- I believe the EcoFriendly is that this stuff doesn't end up in landfills. Presumably you also get gains in processing & refinement -- no tankers full of turkeys running aground befouling (NPI) our beaches and less burnoff.

I tried to dig up details on burn cleanliness, but couldn't find anything. Assume still a loss there, but a gain on the processing end.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:37 PM on April 16, 2003

All I can say is 'wow'. Stunning. Amazing. Way cool.

To the objectors above-- yes, the oil so produced will release carbon into the atmosphere when burned. However, the problem with burning hydrocarbons isn't putting carbon it in the air, it's pulling carbon out of the ground.

To explain: The earth can be seen as a huge carbon cycle. (Vastly oversimplified:) Carbon is absorbed from the air and soil by plants; is incorporated into animals when they eat the plants; and is released back into the soil and air as they live and die.

We've been screwing with this cycle for the last couple of centuries by pulling carbon (hydrocarbons) out of the deep, deep underground where it was safely out of the way and releasing it into the air, directly. This puts more carbon in the cycle than was there before. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere go up, things eventually get uncomfortable.

This technology would allow us to *stop* pulling carbon out of the ground; instead, carbon is recycled through this thermal depolymerization into a usable source. Basically, we add another loop to the existing carbon cycle: Air -> plants -> animals -> waste -> TDP-produced-oils -> air. Net carbon stays the same, carbon concentrations stabilize, and everyone's happy.

No, this isn't perpetual motion. There's a net energy input from the sun, which drives plant (and therefore animal) growth, which is what pulls carbon back out of the air.

Like I said above-- neato-keen stuff.
posted by Cerebus at 12:47 PM on April 16, 2003

Net carbon stays the same, carbon concentrations stabilize, and everyone's happy.

Well, it does clean up the extraction and refinement part of the process dramatically, but the fuels it produces are the same fuels (gasoline, naphtha, and the like), which still produce so-called greenhouse gasses when you burn them. There's no getting around that. Assuming it actually works and isn't a hoax, it's still merely better (maybe even much better), not wholly good.

That said, I really want this to not be a hoax. This is the kind of thing that makes me glad to be alive right now, when all the cool sci-fi stuff I've been reading about for decades is finally coming true.
posted by RylandDotNet at 1:03 PM on April 16, 2003

Um, not to rain on your parade, Cerebus, but shouldn't we note more closely the stage in the process where carbon suspended in the air is ingested/inhaled by mammals and gives them cancer? Otherwise, nice overview. Go, hydrogen!
posted by squirrel at 1:12 PM on April 16, 2003

There's no getting around that.

I think Cerebus's point is that extraction adds carbon to the system. With this technology, you're looking at carbon that's already in the system and would (if I understand what he's saying) return to it eventually. I'm not quite sure I buy it, though.

On preview: squirrel's point makes sense to me as: even if it's carbon within the system, we're still releasing it in a fundamentally different form than it would've been otherwise.
posted by claxton6 at 1:14 PM on April 16, 2003

taumeson you said it better than I. Of course ptermit is right this is nothing new in fact its the same process the Earth used for 5 billion years it's just been sped up and made efficient. Pyrolysis means somthing specific when talking waste disposal and this is not Pyrolysis(TM).
posted by stbalbach at 1:18 PM on April 16, 2003

Taumeson: ptermit, you seem to take that pretty personal.

How so?

here are the "disadvantages" take from stbalbach's link

And, as I said, these look like straw-man arguments to me. I'm not an expert in pyrolysis, by any means, but...

Overall cost is substantial, process is capital intensive ...

I think this is false, especially compared to the TDP multi-stage process.

and some by-products may have limited or no value. The oil product is generally high in tar and asphalt components with low viscosity.

I don't know enough about this to refute it, to be honest, but I suspect that this all depends on the specifics of the process.

Both pyrolysis and gasification have poor heat transfer properties and consequently do not heat evenly.

This doesn't make sense to me. I would assume that the heat transfer depends largely on the geometry and design of your heating container.

Therefore, process products vary greatly. There are a high number of components with low quantities available for recovery.

If you heat the product long enough, pyrolysis will yield basically C, CO, CH4, and a handful of nitrates in high quantities and little variation.

So... the link struck me as a marketing attempt to sell TDP as a distinct process than pyrolysis, and I was not convinced. I don't see how that's taking anything personally.
posted by ptermit at 1:23 PM on April 16, 2003

In the new technology, the organic waste is turned into fuel oil and burned which releases CO2 into the air.

Plan B, so to speak, for organic wastes, is for them to be processed by bacteria and other organisms. Said processing results in the release of CO2 into the air - just like you do everytime eat your Thanksgiving Tofurkey.

So aside from the noted fact that there are additional NOx and SOx problems that result from burning, there is no gases going into the air that weren't going there anyway.

If you want to keep CO2 from turkey guts out of the atmosphere, you have to bury them very, very deep in the ground and keep them there for a long time.
posted by Jos Bleau at 1:27 PM on April 16, 2003

I'm seeing a whole lot of "What's the big deal? Oil pollutes whether it's pumped out of the Middle East or manufactured in Missouri." posts. Let me explain why this might be cool even if it costs some money to produce.

1) It makes oil. Anywhere. No disruptions from Venezuelan Labor Strikes or Iraqi Air Strikes. Potentially no middle man. No big hole in the ground. No potentially polluting trips around the world in big tanker boats. No depending upon foreign officials of varying and debatable degrees of honesty.

2) It reduces the amount of pollution in the world. The stuff is made of garbage, stuff that would ordinarily be put in landfills and dumps. Stuff that developed nations pay big money to get rid of. Stuff that even developing nations have. It is, theoretically, compost for your car.

3) Finally, as the admittedly yucky "human falling into the vat example" illustrates, pure water is a by-product. Pure water is something that is needed by everyone, all over the world. It is in greater supply some places than others. Put these plants in desert areas and solve yet another problem with ease.
posted by ilsa at 1:45 PM on April 16, 2003

Yeah, there's no need to take all the turkey gut CO2 out of the atmosphere... the greenhouse effect comes from going in the back room (aka oil wells) and dragging out all that carbon and pumping it into the air on top of all the turkey gut CO2... what this process does is diminish the need for the "back room" carbon by allowing us to use otherwise useless organic wastes as fuel more directly. It's more efficient because you link the fuel CO2 cycle and the agricultural CO2 cycle instead of wasting half of one which generated the need for much of the other.

I wonder how this process compares with the cost-effectiveness of photovoltaics, solar furnaces, and agricultural fuels as a solar energy production technique - since you can turn all the wastes of pre-existing ag industries (both meat and veggie) into fuel that can be used to generate mechanical power.
posted by techgnollogic at 1:52 PM on April 16, 2003

Wow. Fascinating. I'm a cynic, but I love hearing about this kind of thing. I figure eventually something will pan out.

Oh, and a quibble with the post. There's no support for the assertion that this technology is "supported by ... the CIA." The only apparent CIA connection is that James Woolsey, the CIA Director from 1993-1995, is acting as an advisor to the company that is pursuing the technology.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:26 PM on April 16, 2003

shouldn't we note more closely the stage in the process where carbon suspended in the air is ingested/inhaled by mammals and gives them cancer?

Its not the carbon that causes cancer, its the other crap in the smoke (sulfur, formaldehyde, etc.) that causes that. CO2 and CO just forms greenhouse gas. If CO2 caused cancer we'd all have it from breathing our own emissions! This oil seems to have the sulfur and other minerals separated out somewhat, making it a cleaner fuel than crude (eliminating more dirty steps in the process of oil well to gas pump in the cracking and purifying processes). Less waste to dump in the sea or into landfills, cleaner fuel, no more spills on land or in the sea, no more oil well fires, I too would love to see us move away from hydrocarbons, but this sounds like a great step in the meantime!
posted by Pollomacho at 2:39 PM on April 16, 2003

CO2 and CO just forms greenhouse gas.

Should read: CO2 and CO are just greenhouse gasses. or CO2 and CO just cause the greenhouse effect, anyway something other than what I said!
posted by Pollomacho at 2:40 PM on April 16, 2003

Way to go Science! I've said it before, I'll say it again: you've really been pulling your own weight these last few hundred years, and don't think I don't appreciate it!
posted by Hildago at 2:44 PM on April 16, 2003

I don't have a lot of time, but I went looking through the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division of the DOE, and couldn't find anything about this on a quick browse. Any one else want to take a stab? That's why I'd look for a more critical or comparative take on this technology, especially if it's funded with any government dollars.
posted by claxton6 at 2:45 PM on April 16, 2003

why where.
posted by claxton6 at 2:46 PM on April 16, 2003

Don't forget the added health benefits: five servings of fruits and vegetables everyday to make sure you're contributing! It's communism I tell you! And 'bullshit' would be a compliment...
posted by hellinskira at 2:59 PM on April 16, 2003

Now, I haven't looked, but wouldn't this article benefit from a "Buy stock for this company here" type of link. After reading through the article, I had a thought to go check my bank balance and call my broker.
posted by thanotopsis at 3:19 PM on April 16, 2003

This does look interesting, particularly as a method of waste reduction. I suspect the largest effect of this technology will be to eliminate the landfill.

I'm more skeptical about it reducing our dependence on petroleum.

- It's $15/barrel, they hope for $10. Saudi oil is $2. The Athabaska tar sands is just now dipping under $10/barrel and it's still considered expensive and marginal.

- Their energy numbers are specious. They give efficiency as the energy content of the input waste over the energy use. That's flat-out misleading. They should tell us usable energy of the output fuel. That's all the matters. We do not rate coal plants by the energy of the coal they burn, after all, all we care about is the output. This little evasion suggests that they are not being completely honest in their entire analysis.

- Thirdly, it's feedstock is waste. Fine, that's free, but there is only so much waste in the world and we use an enormous amount of oil. If a market for waste develops (it's happened in other industries, e.g. paper and aluminum), the cost of the output goes up. "Growing" oil, using corn, say, is even worse economically. It presently costs about $1.40 to "grow" a $1 of oil from corn.

- Finally, some of the scenarios they paint make no sense. It's ridiculous to use plastic to make oil, for heaven's sake. That's like using gold bars to build a brick wall. The economics of it are highly dubious. It's a much better idea to recycle the waste plastic to make more plastic.

To summarize, the closed carbon cycle they suggest seems far-fetched. I don't think the numbers add up. We simply don't produce enough waste to satisfy our energy use needs, probably by several orders of magnitude.

Not to say this is a bad thing at all: the process will, if economic, have a huge effect on the size of the city dump. We may not even need dumps, if this takes off. A win indeed, but not the home-run they are swinging for.
posted by bonehead at 3:46 PM on April 16, 2003

Where exactly are you getting this $2/barrel figure, bonehead? The numbers I see here suggest that you are off by at least a power of ten.

I do rather hope this turns out to be more than snake oil. If there is the chance it might work, it seems well worth throwing a couple million dollars into research. But then again, I have heard over and over that nuclear energy plants never make as much money as they cost to build, so maybe economic viability is only one of many issues.
posted by ilsa at 3:56 PM on April 16, 2003

Could this mean a suspension of all pending Asian land wars? If so, great. Thank god. We can worry about pollution later.
posted by raysmj at 4:32 PM on April 16, 2003

There are renewable sources you can already run your cars from.
posted by seanyboy at 4:52 PM on April 16, 2003

ilsa, maybe there's a difference between the cost of extraction and the market price?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:43 PM on April 16, 2003

Not to say this is a bad thing at all: the process will, if economic, have a huge effect on the size of the city dump. We may not even need dumps, if this takes off. A win indeed, but not the home-run they are swinging for.

If the process proved economic for purposes of waste reclamation alone and were instituted for that purpose, then the fuel production may be regarded as a byproduct, and by that method of assessment it's not $15/barrel, it's free.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:46 PM on April 16, 2003

Though come to think of it, any assessment of whether it's economic would include any price you could get for the fuel, so never mind. (Obviously I'm not an economist...)
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:55 PM on April 16, 2003

is it just me or does that front page look like they are going to make oil from eagles
posted by cmicali at 7:14 PM on April 16, 2003

ilsa: Those are spot market (3 mo. contract usually) prices delivered to the customer. They include transportation and, of course, a profit margin. The $2/barrel price I mentioned above is the cost for Saudi Aramco to get the oil out of the ground. This appears to be the closest equivalent CWT's $15/barrel production cost.

Concerning the uses of this technology, in some ways I think that CWT is too focused on the energy production side.

Firstly, waste reduction is a huge issue for municipal governments these days. Is there anyone out there in vacuum land whos' municipality is not worried about running out of dump space? Southern Ontario trucks their trash to Michigan, for crying out loud. Big win there, if this is even vaguely economic. It doesn't even have to make money, it just has to cost less than operating a dump.

Secondly, pollution and contaminated site clean-up are causing enormous problems from government and industry in North America (I'm less familiar with the rest of the world). Currently the "best" (read "cheapest") technique is "scoop and bag," sealing contaminated soil and waste in a lined landfill. This is expensive and not very sustainable. The other main method, incineration, is even more expensive to get right and hugely unpopular. For an idea of the size of the problem, the US government spends about $80 million/year on cleanup (superfund money) with decades more to come.

One of the things that struck me about CWT's fuel reactor is that the inorganic waste stream gets removed as a slurry early---that's most of your pollutants. Done right, you may even be able to sell them back to the metal refineries. For organics, the other major problem children, well, if the superheated steam can breakdown PVC, it should be able to handle chlorodioxanes and PCBs too. Maybe they can beat both sealed landfills and incinerators. CWT should call the US army, they have a few kilotonnes of chemical weapons to dispose of.

CWT really needs to see if they have an opportunity in contaminated site remediation too. I think they may be barking up the wrong trees. Fuels sound sexy, but they might be a side-issue to the best uses for this technology.
posted by bonehead at 8:13 PM on April 16, 2003

Hey, where's my $2/barrel oil?

If the New, Improved Poo Fuel and OPEC oil both come to market at $30/barrel or so, the only difference will be in the profit margin for Poo Energy Co.

And my guess is that Warren Buffett would be pretty happy with the profit margin scenarios, or he wouldn't have invested.

The definitely gives a new meaning to the phrase "crude oil," though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:14 PM on April 16, 2003

The economics obviously fly with the turkey2oil factory in Chicago. As God as my witness, Turkeys can fly.
posted by stbalbach at 8:48 PM on April 16, 2003

According to the Discover article, they expect to produce oil for about $8-12 per barrel, which starts to become reasonable -- as a factory in, say, Thailand I don't care what it costs Aramco to get oil out of the ground, I care how much it costs me in Thailand. the theoretical TDP operation down the block that produces oil at $13 per barrel starts to look pretty darn attractive. After all, TDP plants can be installed all over the place (shipping TDP oil within a city is a heck of a lot easier than shipping it across the planet on a supertanker).

But seriously, I agree with bonehead: the waste-handling angle is vastly more important (IMHO) than the fuel angle. The fuel is just a nifty side-benefit.

If this works, it'll be interesting to see how it affects (or IF it affects) the global petrochemical markets.
posted by aramaic at 9:44 PM on April 16, 2003

I'm not sure you're on the mark there, aramaic. There is basically no cheaper way to move anything anywhere than by supertanker. They are literally the most efficient transportation ever devised by man. If you have to pipe this stuff to a refinery anyway (and from my reading of their site, you do), then I don't think you're really saving much.
posted by Ptrin at 10:11 PM on April 16, 2003

Ptrin, aramaic is absolutely on the mark.

(A) as long as OPEC keeps market prices far above producer price, the cost of transport will be a non-issue, as far as we're concerned, and

(B) oil that shows up at North American deep water terminals has been bought and sold several times already - so when it arrives on the coast, it's at or very nearly at the spot market price. That's over $20 a barrel lately.

(C) What if you're in Kansas City and you have a refinery, and you can get turkey-gut oil (from Carthage, near there) for $15 a barrel - well, that's less, isn't it, even if the cost of shipping the imported oil oil from the deep sea port is zero, right?

(D) But we know that the cost of shipping that imported oil does count, and so, even if the price of the turkey-gut oil was exactly equal to the world market spot oil price it would still be a better buy for the KC refinery.


(E) we have a great example of all that supply/demand/ECON 101 stuff that college profs talk about about AND anther example of the whole 'think globally act locally' idea-thingy that actually makes sense, if you're in KC.
posted by Jos Bleau at 11:12 PM on April 16, 2003

Using TDP even if its costs $50 to make oil, and even if they can only sell it for $10, that's still $10 they never had before so it's really only costing $40 to dispose of the waste. If they make profit fantastic, or if they cut the cost of waste disposal is fantastic.
posted by stbalbach at 8:12 AM on April 17, 2003

I can't think of a more transforming geopolitical event than the widespread adoption of this technology. Suddenly oil is taken out of the equation? Would the Middle East suddenly become invisible to us, like subsaharan Africa? Would old alliances based on oil dependencies fade away, and what would replace them? Would the resale value of my Prius drop through the floor?

Scary, fascinating stuff.
posted by luser at 12:03 PM on April 17, 2003

Hold on, if this fails to be cheaper than the extraction of oil from the ground, why would a country sitting on oil (and not much else) fail to keep pumping the oil? It's still got value, it's still a source of wealth, it'll still pay off in the immediate sense for them to extract it.

Help me out here--what part of this provides a disincentive for the Saudis to keep pumping oil out the ground, which would be the main ecological benefit of this development?
posted by NortonDC at 2:28 PM on April 17, 2003

As for boneheads comments about using plastic as being silly i don't believe he/she/it understands that when recycling plastic there is a loss in quality and therefore there are some grades produced that are not reusable and have to be landfilled. Therefore if you can use this process instead of landfilling you can produce oil (though admittedly i think that's being overhyped in this thread) and REDUCE WASTE (the more important thing)
posted by NGnerd at 2:35 PM on April 17, 2003

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