Michael Smith wrote me about the thermal depolymerization process of Changing World Technologies, Inc. (Global Village News article; recent Fortune article; Wikipedia entry). This process allegedly turns waste--e.g., from turkey processing plants, into crude oil. Its proponents claim we could replace all of the oil we currently import by using only our agricultural waste.
I was and remaing skeptical--too many "cold fusion" scams--but I will admit this does seem at least potentially promising...
Coda: The GVNR article notes that the process "will accept almost any carbon-based feedstock. If a 175-pound man fell into one end, 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.e., you could fuel thermal a depolymerization machine with people. Mark Fulwiler remarks, "at last---a good use for politicians!"
I have my doubts about a process that takes ANY carbon-based feedstock and turns it into a single chemical Even petroleum, which contains thousands of different --- but related --- chemicals emerges from a refinery as a range of output from heavy oils (for asphalt) to methane.
Usually, heat tends to cause polymerization. I have no expertise in organic chemistry, but DE-polymerization by a thermal process sounds fishy, though it might work for some chemicals.
That much said, I have my doubts about the numbers. I doubt that every bit of biomass produced in the US --- if it were simply burned, using all of its energy --- could produce as much energy as we use.
Scientific American is of course a politicized magazine on energy and climate, so take the following with a grain of salt, but... from Mr. Smith's email to me:
In the December 2003 issue, Scientific American designates CWT the top company in the energy category, for devising a method for turning solid waste into oil.
CWT’s thermal process utilizes organic waste materials such as tires, plastics, municipal sewage sludge, paper, animal and agricultural refuse to produce a ready supply of high-value oil and other fungible energy products. The thermal technology works by breaking down long chains of organic polymers into their smallest units, and reforming them into new combinations to produce clean solid, liquid and gaseous alternative fuels and specialty chemicals.
CWT’s process provides a commercially viable solution for some of the earth’s gravest environmental challenges, including arresting global warming by reducing the use of fossil fuels, and reforming low-value organic waste into a high-value resource. In addition, it has the potential to substantially reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
“Even if the idea contributes only a smidgen to our energy needs, it will certainly help get rid of burgeoning waste,” Scientific American states.
Brian Appel, CEO of CWT, said, “We certainly appreciate the recognition Scientific American has given CWT as a company that is making a material difference in the solution to some of our biggest global problems. The ability to have a positive impact on reducing environmental degradation while creating an independent, economically viable source of high quality energy is an extremely exciting and rewarding opportunity. We have very high expectations for our thermal process worldwide.”