Anything into Oil
5/14/2003

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Synthesizing Petroleum in Minutes for $10 a Barrel from Almost Any Trash
     There is an article in the 4-28-2003 Science News taken from the May issue of Discover Online, entitled Anything Into Oil, that describes the conversion of anything from ground-up sofas through sewage to the byproducts of chicken and turkey processing plants to fuel oil and gasoline. The costs of the light Texas crude that would result would be $15 a barrel immediately, $10 a barrel in two years and, eventually, less than $10 a barrel.
  . This article describes a new oil-synthesis process that could turn 600 million tons of waste each year into 4 billion barrels of light Texas crude, supplementing our declining supplies of oil (and basically replacing the 11,000,000 barrels of fuel oil a day or 4.2 billion barrels of oil a year that the U. S. presently consumes). Since the waste that is used to generate this crude oil is recyclable waste, comprising previously trapped sunlight and carbon dioxide, burning it would merely release that same carbon dioxide in a sustainable recycling loop. (The carbon in present-day waste is probably converted to carbon dioxide, anyway. This oil conversion process would simply allow us to convert this waste to a more useful form for us humans.) Of course, fossil fuels also represent previously trapped sunlight and carbon dioxide, but the cycle time for fossil fuels is of the order of 200 million years, compared to a few-year cycle span for typical waste products. The conversion process into oil only requires 
    The article gives the example of 175 pounds of organic "waste" (a 175-pound man) yielding 38 pounds oil, 7 pounds of natural gas (100 - 200 cubic feet?), 7 pounds of minerals (for fertilizer), and 15 and 3/8ths gallons of water.
    The company pioneering this new technique, Changing World Technologies, is negotiating with the city of Philadelphia to convert sewage into fuel.
    Private investors, including Warren Buffett's son, Howard, have committed $40,000,000 to the development of this process, together with $12,000,000 in federal funding. The cost of the resulting light oil is estimated at $15 a barrel, with a target of $10 a barrel in three to five years, and lower costs after that. The first plant, adjacent to the Conagra Butterball plant in Carthage, Missouri, cost $20,000,000 to build, and will convert 200+ tons of of turkey leftovers to about 1,330 barrels of oil a day, or about 500,000 barrels a year. Howard Buffett says "I represent ConAgra's investment. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't anticipate success." The article concludes that by 2005, it should be evident whether the technology is as marvelous as its proponents claim.
    The political issues with this process---which basically accomplishes in minutes what nature achieves in 200 million years---would seem to be momentous. Since this approach would permit the use of existing fuel oil technology, we could leverage all the internal combustion technology that has accrued over the past century. Gas stations' petroleum distribution equipment wouldn't have to be altered. Such a petroleum synthesis process might reduce or eliminate petro-politics and the world's dependence upon Mid-Eastern oil. It could be well-developed within, perhaps, 10 years. Oil could be produced locally, reducing the cost of fuel transportation. Oil spills should become a problem of the past. Global warming could be cut substantially within ten years. 
    On the downside, emissions would remain as high are as they are with today's fossil fuels.
    Fuel cells would still be very desirable for environments such as large cities, and they'll be desirable as battery replacements. However, a hydrogen-based economy leaves moot the question of how hydrogen is to be produced. (Iceland can embrace a hydrogen-based economy because Iceland's stationary power is largely generated by geothermal power-plants).
    This is a startling development. It could revolutionize power generation and automotive power.
    Another article,
Garbage Into Oil  - Technology Review, has since appeared.
    This sounds to me like a promising investment and source of fuel.