The Sludge Buster
4/24/2003

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    "Jerry in Omaha" has called attention to a landmark article entitled "Anything into Oil" that has just appeared in the May issue of Discover magazine. To quote its opening paragraph,
    "In an industrial park in Philadelphia sits a new machine that can change almost anything into oil.
    "Really."
    The example given is that if a 175-poung man fell into one end of this "waste digester" (perish the thought!), "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 can see this showing up in a James Bond movie.)
    The oil so produced is "a very light oil. It is essentially the same as a mix of half fuel oil, half gasoline."
    "We will be able to make oil for $8 to $12 a barrel," says Paul Baskis, the inventor of the process. "We are going to be able to switch to a carbohydrate economy."
    "The potential is unbelievable," says Michael Roberts, a senior chemical engineer for the Gas Technology Institute, an energy research group. "You're not only cleaning up waste; you're talking about distributed generation of oil all over the world."
    "This is not an incremental change. This is a big, new step," agrees Alf Andreassen, a venture capitalist with the Paladin Capital Group and a former Bell Laboratories director.
    "If the process works as well as its creators claim, not only would most toxic waste problems become history, so would imported oil. Just converting all the U.S. agricultural waste into oil and gas would yield the energy equivalent of 4 billion barrels of oil annually. In 2001 the United States imported 4.2 billion barrels of oil. Referring to U.S. dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East, R. James Woolsey, former CIA director and an adviser to Changing World Technologies, says, 'This technology offers a beginning of a way away from this.'"
    "'We've got a lot of confidence in this,' Buffett* says. 'I represent ConAgra's investment. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't anticipate success.' Buffett isn't alone. Appel has lined up federal grant money to help build demonstration plants to process chicken offal and manure in Alabama and crop residuals and grease in Nevada. Also in the works are plants to process turkey waste and manure in Colorado and pork and cheese waste in Italy. He says the first generation of depolymerization centers will be up and running in 2005. By then it should be clear whether the technology is as miraculous as its backers claim."
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* - Warren Buffett's son.
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    While fuel cells will undoubtedly have very important future roles to play, it has seemed to me that an approach that synthesizes traditional fuels, such as biodiesel fuel or gasoline, would be more practical than fuel cells for automotive, heating, and power generation applications because they would be compatible with our existing infrastructure, and could draw upon a century of internal-combustion-engine refinements. Of course, they wouldn't add to the world's carbon dioxide load because, unlike fossil fuels, they draw upon the chain of life that begins with photosynthesis. When we burn biofuels, we're simply returning to the atmosphere carbon dioxide that plants have withdrawn through photosynthesis.
    What a sterling prospect!