Oil from Agricultural Waste

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This article was published by PristinePlanet.com Newsletter, issue #33, 2007-07-10.

Many environmentalists dream of mankind going completely vegetarian, either by choice — for ecological, ethical, or health reasons — or by necessity — from water, feed, or fertilizer shortages. But until that day comes, we will continue to generate billions of pounds of agricultural waste, including animal guts generated from the slaughterhouses that process chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, and other animals that find themselves below humans on the food chain. In fact, of the 6 billion tons of annual waste generated in United States, approximately half of it is agricultural. Prior to mankind's industrial era, all of the waste biomass was simply recycled back into the ecosystem. With the advent of meat rendering on a large-scale, that waste became increasingly recycled in a more systematic fashion, entering the process at a much higher level, in the form of animal feed, fertilizer, and various chemicals. But with the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, there has been a dramatic decline in the practice of feeding dead animals to live ones. (Some vegetarians would argue that humans should treat themselves with equal care.)

Incineration, the burning of waste at high temperatures, has the advantage of generating heat that can be harnessed into electricity. Many municipalities throughout the United States have contracted with commercial firms to convert into energy the waste generated by city residents. But a significant downside to incineration is the adverse environmental impact, in the form of smoke and other airborne pollutants.

Fortunately, incineration is not the only method for using heat to convert biomass into energy. Mother Nature pioneered the process millions of years ago, by trapping dead plants and animals, along with plenty of water, underneath untold tons of sediment — pushing this potent brew closer towards the Earth's molten core. As a result of the intense heat and pressure, and given plenty of time, this high-carbon biomass was gradually converted into the trillions of barrels of oil that most modern-day commuters take for granted. This natural process is not optimal nor quick, but it certainly produced results, on an enormous scale.

Now, with major oilfield production in decline worldwide, energy engineers and other scientists are hoping to perfect the process of converting agricultural waste into usable oil. One company that has made great strides in this area, is Changing World Technologies, which garnered considerable interest from an article titled "Anything Into Oil", published in the May 2003 issue of Discovery. Author Brad Lemley details the progress made by the company at their thermal conversion process plant in Carthage, Missouri. At the time of his follow-up article, in July 2004, on days of peak production, the company was transforming 270 tons of turkey guts and 20 tons of pig fat into 500 barrels of high-quality oil. The leftover material consists of high-grade fertilizer, in addition to water that is clean enough to discharge into a municipal wastewater system. According to the company's website, its proprietary Thermal Conversion Process (TCP) uses heat, pressure, and water to convert organic and inorganic wastes into oils, gases, carbons, metals, and ash. Apparently, even heavy metals are transformed into harmless oxides.

If such technology were made feasible on a global — or at least national — scale, it would alleviate three significant problems facing the modern world: It would address our growing need for clean fuels; provide a permanent solution to the disposal of agricultural waste; and greatly increase the energy independence of the United States. It is estimated that the aforementioned 3 billion tons of agricultural waste could be turned into 4 billion barrels of oil per year. That includes over 600 million tons of turkey guts, a figure which shows no sign of declining — at least until America has a Thanksgiving Day featuring far more tofu turkeys than terminated ones.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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