Put A Turkey in your Tank

As bubblin' crude continues to toggle around $50 per barrel and our brave soldiers sadly prepare to wipe yet another Iraqi town off the map, it might be helpful to remember that many of the problems in the Middle East and other parts of the world have their roots in oil. The corruption associated with oil development fuels and funds our domestic political quagmire, our support for despotic regimes and the resulting reactionary religious extremism. Global warming is being caused by the release of centuries of buried carbon into the atmosphere. Soaring rates of childhood asthma are associated with motor-vehicle emissions, not to mention developmental deficiencies linked to mercury from coal-fired plants.

For Progressives, the issue of energy should be a fundamental pillar of the message we bring to America in the coming campaigns. Although it is probably not in the foreground of consciousness for most Americans, the indirect effect that energy policy has and will have on our lives is huge.

One EXTREMELY promising technology is thermal depolymerization, which mimics the geological processes that transformed the prehistoric inhabitants of Iraq into crude oil we covet today. The tragedy is that, as Fortune Magazine reported this week, American businesses and all levels of our government (blue and red) are letting this American invention slip away as the Europeans begin to realize its potential. And it's Progressive potential is almost unbelievable...

The Technology

Crude oil comes from prehistoric plants and animals that died, settled to the ocean floor and were then mashed by the tectonic plates. The resulting pressure and heat broke their long-chain carbon molecules into short-chain petroleum hydrocarbons. Scientists have been able to mimic that process for some time, but the energy required exceeded the energy in the resulting oil.

In the late 80's Paul Baskis, an Illinois microbiologist, devised a process that improved the efficiency of the process dramatically. The key was performing the operation in two steps. The first step involves heating the organic material under pressure. But unlike earlier processes that tried to boil off the water in the raw materials, the water is left in to help conduct heat and assist the chemical transformation. The second step (15 minutes later) involves suddenly reducing the pressure, which causes most of the water to flash off as steam and the non-organic minerals to settle to the bottom of the tank for recovery. The organic slurry is then sent through a traditional refining process that results in a product similar to fuel oil.

The recovered water is pure and can be safely discharged into municipal water treatment. Any pathogens in the raw materials are killed very dead by the heat. Minerals are safely recovered for recycling. The process has no hazardous emissions whatsoever. Makes me wish I'd paid more attention to Mr. Pearson in my high school chemistry class :+(

Raw Materials

The beauty part is the list of things that can be used as raw materials. While the process has been used commercially primarily with the offal from turkey plants (hence, the title of the essay), pretty much anything organic (which is almost everything except metal, stone and nuclear waste) can be used, including:

  • Waste from animal processing (those notorious meat by-products)
  • Farm waste (besides the B.S. coming from the White House)
  • Sewage sludge
  • Used tires
  • Municipal waste (say goodbye to disposable diaper guilt)
  • Construction waste (including PVCs that become dioxins when burned)
  • Medical waste
  • Old consumer electronics (plastics are organic)
  • Leftovers from petroleum refining
  • Biological weapons
  • Mob hits

Not only could this technology make a huge dent in our dependency on foreign oil (and the associated political, military, moral and religious problems), but it has the potential to ease some really nasty waste disposal and pollution problems. And because the carbon released from burning the fuel is carbon that got sucked out of the atmosphere by plants earlier in the process, it's a zero-sum game that ameliorates the CO2 emissions causing global warming.

And all those alternative-energy jobs that John Kerry talked about? Here ya' go. Hundreds of environmentally friendly plants creating thousands of new, good manufacturing jobs everywhere there's garbage, which is almost everywhere. Red states and blue states. Engineers, truckers, welders, technicians, managers, executive assistants. Rather than sending our finest young men and women to die in Iran or Syria, we can be sending them to work right here at home.

More details on this process are given in an excellent May 2003 article in Discover Magazine which is available online here. (Those of you who view turkeys as gentle, noble, highly-intelligent cohabitants of this big blue orb rather than a source of hydrocarbons might want to avoid this article)

The Bizness

So, why aren't we fueling our SUV's with turkeysoline (or stool fuel, or ass gas)? Because no one in American business or government is willing to make the investment in a disruptive technology.

The company commercializing thermal depolymerization, the appropriately named Changing World Technology, was formed by Dr. Baskis and former commodties trader Brian Appel. CWT built a research plant in 1999 in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

When it appeared the the mad cow scare of 2003 would end the practice of feeding offal and blood to other living animals, ConAgra and CWT built a $30 million plant next to a turkey processing plant in Carthage, MO. The plant produces around 400 barrels of fuel a day, which is sold to a neighboring manufacturing plant for around $40/barrel.

The problem is that when the mad cow scare abated, so did the political pressure to stop the feeding of animals to animals. So the plant has to BUY turkey parts for $30-$40 a ton, with each ton yielding two barrels of fuel. That lifts the production cost of the fuel to $80/barrel.

Other setbacks have followed. In October 2004, Congress gave biodiesel (made from soybeans or animal fat through different chemical process) a tax incentive equivalent to around $1/gallon. But the legislation was too narrowly defined to apply to thermal depolymerization. The New York State legislature ignored a reqest from KeySpan Corporation to include thermal depolymerization in the 2005 Retail Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which provides incentives to increase electrical production from renewable sources.

But CWT is stayin' alive with a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. And European food processors are willing to PAY to dispose of animal offal. Plus, European governments offer tax incentives to biofuel producers. CWT is currently negotiating with Irish Food Processors to build a plant in 2006. I'm sure the Chinese will be jumping all over this one sometime soon (great way to get rid of all those SARS-infected chicken and civets). So, once again, another transformative American invention flees uncaring government and myopic industry for more hospitable environs abroad.

Conclusions

Fuel produced from thermal depolymerization is unique in the pantheon of potential future fuels in that it is a technology that is viable TODAY. Ethenol is pork for agribusiness that requires more energy to plant, harvest, transport and process than it produces. Biomass has promise, but more research is needed. Solar and wind are growing steadily, but will require hydrogen (or some other medium) for use in transportation. Hydrogen will be the fuel of the future, but it is a storage medium (not an energy source) and it will require profound advances in storage technology and huge investments in infrastructure - none of which the oilmen in the Bush administration are willing to fully fund.

So thermal depolymerization waits, quietly simmering like the souls of all those dead dinosaurs deep beneath the boots and bodies of our brave soldiers, longing to be put to brought to life by the Europeans and President Boxer.

Noah built an alter to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacfificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. " (Genesis 8:20)

(Much love to the bipartisan folks at the tech site Slashdot.org for their continuing coverage of thermal depolymerization)

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Comments

1 Comment

Wow! Good stuff progressive.
There are really big developments in this field that I completely missed. I did see a diary somewhere about the initial reason that we added lead to gasoline instead of corn alcohol was because Chevron or somebody had a patent on lead and lobbied Congress to give them a handout.

I read little bits and pieces of the Apollo Energy Project that Kerry almost mentioned during the campaign, but there is a whole lot more to the story than what has been printed in the media. Thanks again.

by Gary Boatwright 2005-02-23 04:47AM | 0 recs

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