Over two years ago, in the sixth issue of this newsletter, we discussed how leading energy analysts correctly predicted, decades ago, that US oil production would peak in the 1970s, and world production would peak in our current time. Now that the mainstream media is gradually providing more coverage for "Peak Oil", we explore in this issue two novel approaches for concurrently disposing of waste and creating oil — a subject that has important direct and indirect consequences to the integrity of the world's environment.
During the 20th century, humans dramatically increased their consumption of petroleum products — primarily in the form of refining and then burning oil as a fuel, converting oil into plastics and rubber, and making fertilizers out of natural gas. The competition among these types of demands, is already having significant economic and even political consequences, such as the huge price increases for corn-based foods, as a result of more US corn being used for the production of ethanol. Yet perhaps the most profound problem of all is one that scientists have warned us about for decades: Destroying the world's petroleum supplies, in the form of burning gasoline, makes that oil unavailable for future production of plastic and rubber. It has been predicted that, at some point, ages from now, mankind will deeply regret this irreversible loss of such a valuable commodity — particularly if and when we need tremendous supplies of plastics for space-based colonies and other future applications.
Decades ago, those policymakers and consumers who supported the use of refined petroleum products as fuels, might have had the excuse that the world's oil and natural gas supplies appeared to be unlimited. In fact, some energy analysts have even argued that oil is formed from magma, instead of the thermal conversion of ancient organic matter, and thus the earth is continually renewing its supply of oil. However, this theory of abiotic oil is invalidated by the growing evidence that the major oil fields of the world have peaked in production, and are now in decline — some of them rather precipitously. Even worse, as our oil supplies decline, our consumption of that oil continues to increase, as more countries industrialize. According to the CIA World Factbook of 28 July 2005, the world's proven reserves of oil amounted to 1,349,417,153,000 barrels, distributed among 97 countries. Two years later, according to the CIA World Factbook of 14 June 2007, 206 countries were consuming a total of 82,234,918 barrels per day (bbl/day), which amounts to an annual consumption of 30,036,303,800 barrels. At that rate, we will have burned up all of our known oil in fewer than 45 years! Critics of Peak Oil counter that these estimates do not take into account the discovery of hitherto unknown oil sources. But there have been few discoveries of medium-sized deposits during the past few decades, and no "elephants". In the meantime, world demand and consumption continue to grow. Clearly, this is unsustainable.
Even though the oil that has been foolishly burned away is permanently lost, would it be possible to recover the oil that is currently trapped in plastic and rubber waste products? Apparently so, according to Global Resource Corporation (GRC), a US company that develops alternative renewable energy technologies. Based in West Berlin, New Jersey, GRC has developed a device that takes in non-recyclable plastic and rubber, and bombards it with microwaves at 1200 different frequencies, thereby cracking the different kinds of hydrocarbon chains. Consequently, the hydrocarbons become natural gas, the remaining gases are converted into oil, and leftovers are kept at a minimum. The process is done entirely inside of a vacuum, and thus no resultant chemicals are released into the environment.
According to GRC's Web site, the energy recovery rates are promising: lubricating oil at 66 percent, diesel oil at 21.5 percent, and kerosene at 12.5 percent. In an article published in NewScientist on 26 June 2007, it is noted that 9.1 kilograms of ground-up tires produce 4.54 liters of diesel oil, 1.42 cubic meters of combustible gas, 1 kg of steel, and 3.40 kg of pure carbon black of a high-quality, which can be reused for pigmenting plastics and tires. Approximately 60 percent of the tires' weight is recovered as high-grade liquid fuel.
There will be no shortage of waste materials to process: According to GRC's site, as of 2005, our environment is currently polluted with 28.9 million tons of municipal plastic waste, of which only 1.65 million tons are recycled (5.7 percent). For instance, some of this waste is plastic-encased copper wiring, for which GRC's technology would be ideal, because the microwaves would strip away all of the plastic, thereby making it much easier to recover the copper itself.
If this new technology proves technically and financially feasible on a large scale, then we can only hope that the oil recovered from the plastic and rubber waste, will be used for manufacturing plastic and rubber products needed in the future, and not burned for fuel. Otherwise, we will be right back in the same predicament as before, and likely regretting our unwise use of petroleum, a valuable but limited resource. Unfortunately, given mankind's predilection for unsustainable lifestyles, it is likely that we will not choose the best path.
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 Web site, 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.
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