Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 07:27:09 PM EST
The oil crisis and the energy crisis are repeated over and over. What if the oil/energy crisis is overblown? What if there is no energy crisis at all? What if we have the technology to convert anything carbon based into oil at a price that is not significantly higher than what we are currently paying right now?
Discovery Magazine has printed three articles on a new process of converting organic material into oil.
In the May 2003 issue of Discover, an article titled "Anything Into Oil" drew a phenomenal reader response. The process described--transforming turkey guts, old tires, used plastic bottles, and municipal sewage into fuel oil--struck some readers as more like alchemy than chemistry and struck others as the answer to energy shortages, not to mention the solution to some of America's worst waste problems. Readers have been asking for an update on how the idea is progressing because our article left the story before the first full-scale industrial plant had been opened. We've been waiting for that plant to start up before writing an update, but because it has been delayed, we asked the author of the original article to give us a midterm report. After the plant is up and running long enough to be reviewed, we'll publish a further evaluation.
The followup article is here
That plant is up and running. Carthage, MO, May 19, 2004 - Renewable Environmental Solutions LLC (RES) today announced that its first commercial plant is selling an equivalent of crude oil No. 4, produced from agricultural waste products. The Carthage, Missouri, plant is currently producing 100-200 barrels of oil per day utilizing by-products from an adjacent turkey processing facility. It is not running at anything close to full capacity though. Full capacity is arount 500 barrels of oil per day. At peak capacity, expected to be achieved by the end of this year, the first-out plant will produce 500 barrels of oil per day, as well as natural gas, liquid and solid fertilizer, and solid carbon. This was in 2004. The latest press release Renewable Environmental Solutions, shipped more than 250,000 gallons (6000 barrels) of renewable diesel fuel in April 2006, representing approximately 30% of the plant's capacity. The plant is expected to achieve full capacity in the near future. Problems, but not failure.
Let me back up a bit and describe the process:
The Thermal Conversion Process, or TCP, mimics the earth's natural geothermal process by using water, heat and pressure to chemically reform organic and inorganic wastes into specialty chemicals, gases, carbons and fertilizers. Even heavy metals are transformed into harmless oxides.
The first thing a visitor sees when he steps into the loading bay is a fat pressurized pipe, which pushes the guts from the receiving hopper into a brawny grinder that chews them into pea-size bits. Dry feedstocks like tires and plastics need additional water at this stage, but offal is wet enough. A first-stage reactor breaks down the stuff with heat and pressure, after which the pressure rapidly drops, flashing off excess water and minerals. In turkeys, the minerals come mostly from bones, and these are shunted to a storage bin to be sold later as a high-calcium powdered fertilizer.
The remaining concentrated organic soup then pours into a second reaction tank--Appel says the two-stage nature of the process distinguishes it from dozens of failed single-stage waste-to-oil schemes devised over the last century--where it is heated to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and pressurized to 600 pounds per square inch. In 20 minutes, the process replicates what the deep earth does to dead plants and animals over centuries, chopping long, complex molecular chains of hydrogen and carbon into short-chain molecules. Next, the pressure and temperature drop, and the soup swirls through a centrifuge that separates any remaining water from the oil
Current Cost per barrel of oil $80 US.
Lets talk Europe:
"We thought we would get $24 a ton for taking the waste," says Appel. "Instead, we are paying $30 a ton." That alone raises his production costs about $22 a barrel.
Which brings us to why Appel and his technology are likely to move to Europe. As the United States has crawled toward making its food supply safer, Europe has sprinted, eager to squelch mad cow disease as well as to stanch global warming and promote renewable energy. The result is a cornucopia of incentives for thermal conversion.
In Ireland, plant operators would get an astronomical $50 per ton to haul slaughterhouse waste away, another $30 per ton in carbon dioxide emissions-reduction credits, a guaranteed price of up to $92 per barrel, and a 20-year price guarantee. "In a 500-ton-per-day plant, our production costs would be under $30 a barrel, and we could sell for about $100 a barrel," Appel says. "It's just amazing."
This would potentially change oil into a renewable energy resource. It has some interesting possibilities. At the same time, lets consider some of the potential problems:
- Canada's tar sands will become even more economically exploitable. Canada's oil reserves are 2nd to Saudi Arabia - that's a lot more carbon in the atmosphere.
- Political instability in the Middle East.
- Continued support for our consumer life style.
- Continued support for cars over public transport - especially in the US and Canada.