This Week’s Weirdest Technology

If you’ve seen Disney’s movie Chicken Run, you might appreciate the mental images conveyed by this week’s weirdest technology:

A truck pulls up to one end of a plant. Straight from Butterball’s nearby turkey slaughterhouse operations, waste products – totting heads, gnarled feet, slimy intestines, and lungs swollen with putrid gases – are dumped unceremoniously in. Two hours later, an oil carrier pulls up to the plant. They’re not extracting something grisly, though. What the oil carrier sucks out is 150 barrels of fuel oil, valued at about $12,600 wholesale.

Literally some of the world’s nastiest stuff turned into oil that’s better than crude and doesn’t requre a refinery to use.

In all, about 500 barrels of oil are made per day at the Changing World Technologies’ plant. It comes from 270 tons of turkey waste and 20 tons of pig fat from another nearby slaughterhouse. What can’t be converted into fuel isn’t wasted, though – it becomes high-grade fertilizer, and water clean enough to discharge into a municipal wastewater system.

Our energy-hungry world could use more technology like this. It’s called a biorefinery and it could virtually eliminate the waste we dump into landfills every year. The process this plant in Carthage, Missouri uses – thermal conversion – can take materials ranging from the turkey waste it uses to municipal sewage, old tires, mixed plastics, and all the other by-products of a throw-away society and turn it into something that people continue to fight for: high-quality oil.

Brian Appel, the plant’s owner and CEO of Changing World Technologies, has had a rough time getting the plant off the ground. Funded privately and by government grants, it’s taken more than 3 years just to get the settings right and to work with the nearby community on eliminating the extremely unpleasant smell of its operations.

According to the staticians over at World Oil Facts Reserve, United States is the top oil-consuming country – dominating the list by more than 14 million barrels a day consumed more than the next hungriest country, Japan. We’re far from self-sufficient, though. That figure is 6 million barrels less than we make a day.

How important is all of this? Well, it’s important enough that the people who compile these statistics have to provide a disclaimer, “The estimation of reserves is fraught with politics and guesswork.” Many countries are suspected of claiming a higher amount of oil reserves than they have because their production quotas are based on the size of their reserves. Many Middle Eastern countries revised their reserves upwards – dramatically – in 1988 and 1990, despite no major new oil discoveries.

Taking all of this into account, many experts are optimistic about Appel’s operations. “I’m impressed,” Gabriel Miller, a New York University chemistry professor and consultant to KeySpan Corporation, a gas and electric utility that serves New York, told Discover magazine. “The fuel that comes out is better than crude, and you don’t need a refinery to use it. I think they can bring it deep into commercialization.”

In fact, Miller has recommended that KeySpan use Appel’s biorefined oil in its generators.

And KeySpan could, if they wanted to. Appel’s oil meets specification D396, a widely used oil that powers electrical utility generators. Only recently has he decided to sell oil directly to utilities and refineries, though. The oil can be sold as is to utility companies, further distilled into vehicle-grade diesel and gasoline, or, via a steam process, made into hydrogen.

Weird technology, yup – but it’s almost like alchemy. Instead of taking manure and turning it into gold, we can turn it into something that wars are fought over. Alchemists had the prettier idea, for sure, but this one might end up being more valuable to humankind. Appel is confident that the process can solve waste problems, supplement oil supplies, and – good news for him – become immensely lucrative.

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