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Killing germs, reducing waste, making oil: TDP might be the next big thing

This was going to be a column about oil. Instead, it's also about disease, poison, and a cool way to get rid of both.

Actually, it's about a new technology — a new process that is going to make a Difference. One that's going to change things, and one you're going to be hearing a lot more about.

The process is called thermal depolymerization or TDP, and the company that's doing it is West Hempstead, N.Y.-based Changing World Technologies.

Don't be intimidated by the name. It's just a nine-syllable way of saying "using heat to break down complex material into simple material."

Specifically, TDP turns just about anything into oil and fertilizer. And when I say "anything," I mean that: animal waste, medical waste, human waste. Used diapers, used computers, used tires. Anything that's not radioactive can be tossed into the hopper.

Those things go in one end of the process and come out the other as diesel oil and fertilizer using a process that mimics the Earth's. But instead of taking millions of years to turn plants, dinosaurs, and what-have-you into Venezuelan crude, TDP takes hours to do the same to just about anything you can throw in it. No wonder the energy industry is funding pilot projects and research facilities.

And this is not just a theoretical process. It ain't cold fusion. TDP is real, out-of-the-lab stuff. It's happening on an industrial scale, today. At the ConAgra Foods facility in Carthage, Missouri, hundreds of tons of turkey waste from the company's Butterball plant are being turned into oil every day — enough oil to generate 11-12 megawatts of power, according to Changing World's chairman and CEO, Brian Appel.

The City of Philadelphia currently turns a lot of its sewage sludge into landfill. (All together now: Eww.) But working with Changing World, the city is planning a TDP project to divert that sludge — and whatever pathogens are living in it — away from the land and into oil. Local power companies can then turn the oil into electricity. Win, win, win.

At first, it was the oil angle that was TDP's selling point. In case you hadn't noticed, we get a lot of ours from countries that don't like us very much. Then they give our money to people who use it to kill us. So TDP was being touted as a way to reduce our imports. In fact, get this: According to Appel, there are more than 12 billion tons of agricultural waste generated every year in the U.S. (And that's undoubtedly a low number; it's based on 1988 figures.) Were it all to be put through the TDP process it would turn into more than four billion barrels of light crude oil.

That ain't chicken feed. (Not once the system's done processing it, anyway.) According to the U.S. Department of Energy, we imported about 3.3 billion barrels of crude oil in 2002.

In other words, if we converted just our agricultural waste to light crude using TDP, we could stop our oil imports…and then some.

Yes, yes, yes—these are perfect-world numbers. So cut 'em in half. Or more. Heck, imagine the benefit of weaning ourselves of just 10% of our oil imports.

But oil, which used to be thermal depolymerization's big story, is now its number two selling point. Thanks to Yakima, Wash., the big story is no longer what comes out, but what goes in. Yakima is where the first American case of mad cow disease — otherwise known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) — was discovered.

BSE is carried in the brain and spinal tissue of cows by an oddly-folded protein called a prion. Unlike viruses or bacteria, prions are tough to kill; just cooking meat doesn't do it. (This is because prions aren't really alive. They can't be killed; they need to be destroyed.) And — sorry to you folks who might be planning a burger for dinner tonight — a lot of cattle in the U.S. are de facto cannibals: Their feed often contains parts of other cows, including the nerve matter believed to be the most efficient carrier of the disease. If those other cows have BSE, the disease gets around. Keeping the nation's cow-feed supply clean is critical.

Right now, we keep BSE from spreading by preventing the brain and spinal cord tissue of cattle from being fed to other cattle. We destroy it instead, or at least we try to — remember, prions don't give up the ghost very easily. Europe has experimented with incinerating BSE-infected carcasses, but in fact, there's no large-scale way to get rid of that tissue, so there's always a risk of it getting back into the food chain.

That's where TDP comes in. As Changing World's Appel puts it, "The prion has achieved mythical status of being indestructible." But it's not. TDP destroys prions.

So instead of burning and burying potentially infected cows, run them through a TDP system. No prions. Instead of "destroying" brain tissue (infected or not), run it through a TDP system. No chance of prions. According to Appel, TDP can effectively "divert these proteins away from the food chain so that issues brought by cannibalism can be ended." Nothing survives: "We destroy all pathological vectors." (Want to bet that the Department of Homeland Security is interested, too?)

But wait. There's more.

Dioxins and PCBs are two particularly nasty kinds of chemical. Right now, we don't really dispose of what we make; we burn or bury it, which means it ends up forgotten but not gone. More specifically, it ends up in the grass and water, and thus back in the food chain. Remember reading about how many PCBs were in farm-raised salmon? Or that the carcass of Keiko the killer whale — better known as Willy of Free Willy fame —has so many PCBs in it, it poses an environmental threat ? PCBs and dioxins are bad news.

But thermal depolymerization is good news. It breaks down industrial and medical wastes and poisons. So instead of burning that stuff and introducing nasties like PCBs and dioxins into the environment, you can run them through a TDP system where they get broken down into their components, which include — lest we forget — oil. As Appel says, "Let's divert this nasty material away from the food chain. It's that simple."

TDP takes the worst stuff out there and turns it into something useful. It has the potential to make a huge dent in our national energy bill, to remove the nastiest waste from the environment, and to make garbage-burning and landfills a thing of the past.

It's the product of good science and hard work, and we're seeing only the first glimmers of what it can do — a dozen megawatts in Missouri, better sewage processing in Philly. But interest and investment are running high, so you can bet you'll see more of TDP in the next few years. And who knows? Maybe before the decade is out we'll be able to cut ourselves off from the Saudis. "Remember September 11?" we'll say. "So do we."

Andrew Kantor is a technology writer, pundit, and know-it-all living in Columbus, Ohio; he's also a former editor for PC Magazine and Internet World. Read more of his work at kantor.com.

Editorial Notes: Since industrial agriculture has such massive fossil fuel inputs, extracting oil out of agricultural waste should be considered a form of efficiency, not really an energy source. Nevertheless, lets hope that this technology is as good as it's patent holders claim. -AF

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