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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I just want to say one word to you -- just one word

You have to scroll down to see it, but there's quite a story here about a supposedly cheap process for turning plastic back into oil. If we could easily exchange plastic bottles for oil, perhaps we could stop exchanging blood for it fairly soon.

Or is this whole thing a hoax?

Envion Demo from EnvionDemo on Vimeo.

Comments (29)

Grey Lady apparently taking it seriously. Here's link to NYT's green blog from September 16.

For starters:

(1) It takes oil to make oil.
(2) Recovering oil from plastic doesn't increase the oil supply, it just (at best) delays shortage and briefly extends oil dependence.
(3) Making more fuel never results in less use of that fuel--it results in increased use.
(4) See biofuel.

When it comes to consumption, we're like six-year-old children: we want to eat as much as we want, anytime we want, and any parent who says otherwise is a Communist.

Governor K is going to call an emergency session of the legislature to figure out how to throw some money at these guys.

Randy is drafting an ordinance that makes all city vehicles run on plastic bags.

It's a go!

It's not a hoax, per se -- most plastics are oil, after all.

But people are quite capable of convincing themselves that it means something that it doesn't -- hoaxing themselves, as it were.

What plants like this say is that p--- o-- is here, which means things like this will make no difference in our ultimate trajectory, because a once-through process (anything starting with fossil fuels and ending with combustion and pollution emissions) is still unsustainable.

We're transitioning from a world where you stuck a straw in the ground and abundant highly concentrated energy in an amazingly useful and easily pumped form flowed out to one where we're trying to figure out how we capture some of the system losses that are two and three orders of magnitude smaller than anything we used to care about.

Here's another non-hoax (poop power) that, while legitimate, shows just how rough the transition is going to be, because the energy yields are so much lower:

Imagine for a minute that this plastics plant works well -- even at 100% efficiency if you like, and that it has no energy cost itself.

If that were true, then within days all the scrap plastic feedstock close at hand will be used up. Within weeks, the nearby feedstock is used up. Within months, the feedstock within many miles is used up -- and before you know it you're spending more energy to find and ship scrap plastic to the mill than they yield. Further, if there is a perfect process for making plastic back into its constituent oil, then the cost for all new plastic will be set by the price of oil, which has to be pretty high to justify building plants like this.

Before long, people remember that you get a higher energy yield from the oil using it directly instead of passing it through a couple of transformations.

Something like 4% of petroleum is used to make plastics, so it's hardly a new font for oil.

Then again, the Japanese are already ahead of us on this one. They have a power plant that runs by incinerating pelleted, recycled plastics!

Japan imports nearly all of its primary energy (~85%), and only has about 5-6 months of energy reserves in case of disaster. As fossil fuels continue to decline, Japan will be hit hard and sharply by the shortage.

But one out of every four barrels of oil on the planet is consumed here in the US, and about three of every four we consume is imported. And the US imports much of its primary energy too.

I think what people like George (above) and me are trying to say is--this sort of technical rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic is the wrong conversation and focus altogether. Several magnitudes less of consumption and a different way of life are what's going to be needed to make a go of it.

Meanwhile, It's going to be a profoundly painful transition, and there's not going to be a miracle cure, or even a handful of semi-miraculous cures. In the span of human history, fossil fuels are ephemeral and have already nearly came and went in the span of a century. In that time, we've built an entire civilization on what appeared to be "limitless" energy, all while knowing it wasn't true.

I've been watching similar claims for quite a long time: you had companies suggesting this thirty years ago. The problem is always with whether you produce more energy by the conversion than what it took to make those plastic bottles and the like. Even if it was a one-for-one conversion, and the energy use was so miniscule that you could run whole plants off solar power, you're still looking at the Law of Diminishing Returns. Namely, you're still going to need raw materials for the conversion process, and if we aren't using oil for the plastics, then we're using oil for power to grow the biomaterials to make the plastic. Either way, it's a great idea, comparable to "dehydrated water".

Last year I saw a demonstration where they were able to turn tire rubber back into oil. The process used didn't take long and used the right frequency of microwaves to break the rubber back into its base components.

My first thought was how much power consumption did it take? My second thought was, guess it's better then sitting in the dump. I'm sure it's not very economical to do at this time but hopefully improvements to the system will make it so.

These guys had a great idea in the late 90s. Buffet even invested. I don't see it taking the world by storm...


Missouri-based turnkey waste-to-diesel company Changing World Technologies filed for bankruptcy in early March 2009. ...

(via google news)

If somone can figure out how to convert the styrofoam and other garbage swirling around in those giant whirlpools in the ocean into a fuel, I say, "go for it."

Otherwise, I think the idea is shortsighted and, ultimately, not a viable solution.

We're simply unwilling to give up our inexpensive unlimited passenger vehicle driving jones so we keep groping around for ways to feed it.

"We're simply unwilling to give up our inexpensive unlimited passenger vehicle driving jones so we keep groping around for ways to feed it."

Key words highlighted. When the latter is no longer true, the former will no longer be true either.

Rob, I had a bad feeling about Changing World Technologies, and you confirmed it. A lot of these new recycling technologies sound like a great idea when tested, but there's a huge gap between prototype plants and a process that can actually work on a larger scale and on a cost-efficient basis. (And the gimps aren't helping to clear the matter, either.)

...and the word is...


Moody Blues.

I hate saying this, but I agree with ecohuman.

It does take more energy to get oil by recycling than pumping it out of the ground, so I don't know how this affects the carbon footprint.

Well, Steve, that's easy (and I'm not being flippant about this). If it takes that much more energy to recycle that plastic into oil, where's the energy coming from? I very seriously doubt that it's coming from solar, so you're either getting it from burning fossil fuels or biofuels, or you're getting it via fission reactors. Either way, it's an interesting situation.

Mind you, as a method of clearing out waste plastics, I'm all for it. However, all this will do is delay hard decisions about population and prosperity until the current plastic reserves in Earth's landfills and oceans are gone. At that point, we're out of oil, we're out of oil-based plastics, and we're further entrenched in a lifestyle that requires both. At that point, it's time for the Australian motorcycle punks in mohawks and bondage pants to come visiting the neighborhood.

Regarding Changing World tech and its thermal depolymerization technology, the underlying technology looks sound. Evidently the business had some trouble scaling the process up to large capacity in a profitable way, but that doesn't mean the technology doesn't work.

If petroleum becomes really scarce in future, we might find that one day it would become economically feasible for a company to acquire the mineral rights to a large retired landfill and set up a TDP plant to recover the raw materials from the contents. (Raw materials not limited to oil, but also including lots of other stuff we routinely toss, such as copper and gold.)

That day is probably a goodly ways off, though.

We are all subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and no matter what, we are hastening entropy by simply being here and recreating ad infinitum. So while energy management is crucial, we cannot reverse into anti-entropy.

I would be interested in how much they use to generate the synthetic crude. At $10/bbl cost, using $50/bbl oil to run it seem counter productive unless it takes only a fraction of a barrel to produce a barrel. If so, they could run on their own output after start-up.

"I would be interested in how much they use to generate the synthetic crude. At $10/bbl cost, using $50/bbl oil to run it seem counter productive unless it takes only a fraction of a barrel to produce a barrel. If so, they could run on their own output after start-up"

Like most "biofuels" schemes (oil = The First Biofuel), the whole thing is basically a way to turn the energy from coal or natural gas into a liquid fuel, although Monkey County, MD does draw some nuclear power from Calvert Cliffs.

In the first case it's a disaster because we need to stop using coal entirely. In the second, it's a tragedy because it's far more efficient to simply use NG directly for transportation. And it's a farce in the last case because using nuclear-generated electrons to make oil to power pizza delivery vans and cruising billboards is like the Polish Alchemist (turning gold into lead).

Alan's comments reminded me of the evolution of logging in Multnomah and Clatsop Counties. Exploiters hit the areas near the shore of the river first, where it was easy to shift logs to the river or slough and either transport or mill them.

The location of the Lower Columbia River Highway was driven by the need to open up area further inland for housing and logging in the Beaver Valley. This - and the fact that the new state highway standards mandated that the highway should not cross the railroad line at grade - left cities like St. Helens, Inglis and Mayger out in the cold. Simon Benson had moved his operations to the Washington side of the river by the time of the Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

It was more expensive to log further from the river but there wasn't anything left to log in closer proximity to the shore (recall "Stumptown"). The days of the million dollar lumber barons like Benson and Yeon were over.

When oil is no longer easy to get to, as logs were no longer easy to harvest, industry was willing to expend more time and money to look at alternatives. But not until then.

"And it's a farce in the last case because using nuclear-generated electrons to make oil to power pizza delivery vans and cruising billboards is like the Polish Alchemist (turning gold into lead)."

It's a farce in other ways in any case. Taking Second Law efficiency into consideration, since the conversion of energy always moves to the lowest denominator (heat), it makes sense to use such expensive sources for high level jobs. It's no different to use nuclear power to run a pizza van than to light an inky light bulb. Use it to run a machine shop, for instance, and recover the heat to do other, more common chores, then eventually to heat your home.

@ Lawrence: Though the TDP process seems to be a very circular tail-eating sort of deal, it's really not: the feedstocks put into the process have quite a lot of energy in them, but in a form that's not especially useful. (Like turkey guts, ferinstance. Better to use it for this than for making Dibbler's sausages.) TDP adds water and heat to the feedstock in such a way as to transform the feedstock's long-chain polymers into short-chain polymers which are more useful to us. Some of the products are skimmed off to help heat the processor, some of the products are very similar to light crude, and other products include elemental carbon and oxides of metals present in the feed.

TDP is not repeat not an energy-generation tech, it is a recycling tech.

I actually knew one of the guys who found one of the biggest oil fields in Arabia. Isn't that a trip?
One thing I've noticed is that even though these exploration stories are way down, each big new oil discovery now is invariably called "vast." I think Iran just had one as did somewhere else. Both stories used the word, "vast" for the reserves.
But then you do the math and you realize this vast new field only really buys us another 100 days or whatever in global oil supply.
Translation: We need a new energy system or a lot of us are going to die off unless we die off some other way.

There's no question that the production would be trivial to overall demand. And there is no question that it shouldn't be allowed to distract us from getting off fossil fuels.

That said, and however small a fraction of petroleum use plastics represent, those that aren't currently recycled are still a massive waste headache. One would like to say, well, then stop making them. That would be ideal. But, until then, and for the stuff that we are already stuck with, here's a way to get them used up as fuel.

Yeah, and why haven't our Soviet of Portland overlords banned those stinking rolling billboards? If ever there was an egregious waste of fossil fuels, air quality and time wasted sitting in traffic that should be criminalized it is those obscene things.

This reminds me of a time in the middle 1970’s when Schnitzer leased a couple of hundred acres at their N. Portland site to a bunch of crooks that were going to recycle tires. These guys charge two bucks for each tire they took in, piled them on the property, never paid a dime in rent and took off. Schnitzer then a massive problem getting rid of a couple of million old tires. They hired this guy who said he was going to make oil out of them and other chemical byproducts. They build a small pilot plant and it never worked. Eventually they ground them all up and sold it as fuel for power plants.

Don't know if anyone has mentioned this above, but we're already doing pastic-to-crude in the NW...

Before this, much of it was being shipped to China for similar use (which makes a ton of sense?). But prices for recycled plastic dropped way off and carriers were turning away materials from the commercial sector. In the long run, maybe it pencils out, maybe it requires some subsidies. But it seems like the most logical way to deal with plastic refuse mass. It ain't going away otherwise...

Right on cue: The New York Times is raving about all the new oil discoveries so far this year: 10 billion barrels. Wow!!!! 'Til you realize the world goes through that in 4 months.


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