A process by which organic waste is reduced to small molecules, which can then be refined into a variety of other compounds. As TDP is designed to mimic the process by which oil forms naturally (albeit on an incredibly accelerated timeline), the most interesting of these is oil. Black gold. Texas tea.

Being developed by a company called Changing World Technologies, this process has broad implications if it actually works as advertised - it would potentially eliminate a vast amount of the waste we currently put into landfills and sewers, and help us wean ourselves off of oil pumped out of the ground.

CWT is currently finishing their first plant, in Carthage, Missouri. The plant is designed to handle byproducts of a commercial turkey farm owned by ConAgra Foods there. According to CWT's chairman, the waste is first placed into a tank and superhydrated. It is then heated to about 500 degrees Fahrenheit at 600 psi. After about fifteen minutes under these conditions, the waste begins to separate into much smaller molecules. The sludge that results is then rapidly depressurized in order to remove the water, and minerals are removed. The remaining organic solution is pumped into a second tank, and subjected to what amounts to refinement (as in an oil refinery). Finally, different weights of oil are separated out from water, powdered carbon and gases. The minerals, carbon, gases and oil can all then be sold for profit.

If the process works as advertised, it's a fairly efficient way of obtaining oil. CWT claims they only have to input 15 btus for every 100 btus worth of oil they get. Furthermore, they claim their oil costs about $15/barrel to produce, but that in larger plants than their test plant in Philadelphia, economies of scale could lower the cost to as little as $8. If they're right, they could potentially help curb global warming and reduce U.S. (and, for that matter, everyone else's) dependence on foreign oil. The latter, of course, is good for net importers, bad for net exporters.

On the other hand, plant cost may or may not end up being a prohibiting factor. CWT's Carthage plant is supposed to cost $20,000,000 to build, and will produce about 220,000 barrels of oil a year. In other words, the plant costs about $100 for every barrel it produces annually. By way of comparison, a traditional oil refinery that is supposed to begin construction in Russia this year is slated to cost $1.3 billion, but to produce 73,000,000 barrels a year - more like $20/barrel. Then again, I'm woefully ignorant of the economics of the oil industry, and furthermore, CWT's plants will produce other products, some in higher quantities - so it's possible the comparison breaks down there.

If the process works as advertised, we also get the side benefit of reducing atmospheric carbon, and a clean way of disposing of toxic organic waste (including medical waste, sewage, and other disease vectors). Even better, it's not just limited to biological material. Plastic, for example, will work. The material doesn't even have to be homogenous - in theory, one could toss the contents of their garbage can into the tank and have them depolymerized en masse. The process can even be used to efficiently extract oil from coal. Time will tell if it works as well as CWT claims, and furthermore whether or not it's commercially viable. Here's hoping.


Thanks, machfive, for reminding me that it works on anything organic, not just biological material.