Hydrous pyrolysis?

Has anyone read or heard about the process known as hydrous pyrolysis? It can be used to synthesize petroleum indefinitely from animal waste products. The people-who-know predict that it will be more cost effective than drilling when at-the-pump prices reach $4.60 or higher on a consistent basis. Of course, that kind of pricing and the complications/propaganda/public reaction associated with changing to synthetic oil will probably cause issues similar to those of Peak Oil decline, albeit to a far lesser degree. It also means no depletion will ever happen and since the oil barons are already preparing to make the transition, it likely won't create cataclysmic economic event due to the collapse of any major corporations.

This doesn't invalidate the importance of green wizardry but it does paint a far brighter picture of the future. Has anyone else heard about this?

There are all kinds of pyrolysis processes. While I am far from an expert on the various types of thermal depolymerization, I do remember a story of a factory in Missouri a few years back that was going to use turkey waste from the Butterball factory it was built next to. They went bust rather quickly. This is neither easy nor cheap at an industrial scale. I suspect that $4.60 number your heard is highly optimistic. Don't forget that all types of pyrolysis are endothermic processes, and that number was almost certainly calculated using input energy at today's prices. By the time gas actually reaches $4.60 at the pump, the break even cost has probably risen to $6. There is a crossover point of course, but it is likely in the $10 - $20 range,

I have built a gassifier in the past which does standard anhydrous pyrolysis as opposed to the hydrous version you are referring to. That is something easily built with scrap materials, and the producer gas output can be used to run a car if you so desire. Lots of examples from the 70's of people doing this. You can even buy a kit now from GEK that makes the whole process incredibly simple. The units are big and clumsy, but who really cares when you need to move from point A to point B and you don't have any other choice? The problem here is that there just isn't enough biomass available to allow us to keep up our wasteful lifestyles. There might be enough to allow each community to have one vehicle that makes one trip each day to the next town in order to trade at the market. But standard gasifiers certainly have a substantially higher probability of being adopted on a widescale than any of the more complicated thermal depolymerization techniques.

One other thing to consider about bio oils. The term aromatic means exactly what it says. Those oils tend to stink. Not saying that would stop anyone from using it in a pinch, but it sure wouldn't be desirable when there was perfectly good dinodiesel to be had.

There are many solutions that can be done at a farm scale to provide energy. Harnessing the sun by growing trees, gasifying them and running a combustion engine is likely a technology that is with us for the long haul. As long as the ash is mixed with compost and returned to the land, it is exactly equivalent to a natural solar panel. It is slightly less efficient, but without any need for batteries or exotic semiconductor technology it is infinitely more sustainable.

So I would think the anhydrous version of pyrolysis generating producer gas will be used rather than the hydrous variety with bio oil to provide energy and mobility. It is just much, much easier to do. It is even cost effective today.

thank you so much for all that info. it makes a lot of sense and answers some questions i had about the whole idea.

This is one of those things that is incredibly clever when done at a benchtop scale, but there are unanswered questions that might make it completely unworkable, or perhaps even disastrous, if massively scaled up.

One: Is there enough animal waste (including ours) available to provide enough synthetic fuel to maintain a significant fraction of Business As Usual? Corn ethanol "works" fine per se, but if you converted the nation's entire cropland to ethanol corn, you'd still not have enough ethanol fuel to use it like we use gas today.

Two: What will be the energy cost of delivering the "raw materials" to the plants and processing them; will the EROEI be so low that (as for corn ethanol) this is an inefficient use of resources that will never thrive without large subsidies?

Three: The waste of animals fed from soil needs to be returned to the soil if it is to gain rather than lose fertility. We already have a bad habit of diverting much of it to the oceans, which don't really want it. If we start making fuel out of human and livestock waste rather than using it for fertilizer, will this exacerbate our food crisis?

one: I don't know enough about to say for sure, but these people certainly think so: http://www.changingworldtech.com/index.asp

two: Again, I don't know. But waste products are constantly available in excess domestically. This approach would eliminate the need to drill, pump, transport internationally, pay international tariffs, and suffer the will of foreign oil lords who can manipulate entire nations with their costs. Sewage costs could be compounded with transportation of the raw materials and the biggest question would be whether or not the pyrolysis process is more or less cost effective than traditional oil refining (combind with all the other costs mentioned above).

Three: This is more of a challenge. While some biowaste should be composted, clearly it can't all be used as fertilizer. So, some human feces could be used to synthesize petroleum instead of it's current destiny as a space-hogging potential pollutant. It would be a balancing act between fuel and fertilizer.

dtrammel's picture

One: Their calculation is based on assuming that all agricultural waste produced in the USA goes into the process, after which they will produce 3.7 billion barrels of oil a year.

This contains the dangerous assumption that everything classes as "waste" in agriculture is simply "disposed of". In practice, their pilot plant ran into great difficulties when they found that the turkey waste they were trying to run it on was also used as cattle feed, so they had to purchase it for $30/ton, which added $15-$20/barrel to their production costs. I suspect you would find that the vast majority of agricultural "waste" products get recyled in some way or other, some as manure, some (and probably rather more than should be) as feed.

Also, as contraction proceeds and resources pass their peaks, not only will agriculture become less productive from lowered availability of oil, oil-based fertilisers, and mineral-based fertilisers, but the tendency to want to reuse waste will increase.

This is really the strongest argument against this, and it's worth noting that CWT filed for bankruptcy in 2009 because their process simply could not compete (even with oil at current prices).

Two: The Wikipedia article puts the EROEI at 6.67. USA domestic oil is about 14. Imported is a bit less. This shaves a fair bit off the 3.7 billion barrels, but still leaves you with a few billion.

Three: See one.

One last issue -- the plants themselves cost energy to build and set up. You have to assume that that energy will be available at the outset, which, as oil becomes scarce, it likely will not.

It might work on a small scale, and maybe even be profitable after oil prices climb even higher, but it will not produce "cheap" fuel.

dtrammel's picture

As far back as I can remember (and at 54 that's quite a ways...lol), there has been one new process after another presented that will solve everything and lead us all to a new and happier tomorrow.

Fusion, cold fusion, algae making gas, bio-diesal, solar, satelite solar, etc, etc, etc...

The problem is once these things get out of the test tube and into practical applications, they never live up to the hype.

dtrammel's picture

I'm not so quick to dismiss it. I feel that this is a different scenario because we are closer to the collapse of the current oil production paradigm and the oil companies know it. I'm counting on the greed of Big Oil CEOs to save us. By that I mean, they are very intelligent, very greedy people who do not want to give up their lifestyle. When presented with the fact that eventually the companies which sustain that lifestyle will have no viable products to sell, they will immediately seek replacement products in order to keep making the big money. That's why even if hydrous pyrolysis isn't the solution (though it really seems to be), I'm still confident that Big Oil is funding adequate research to figure out the solution to the alternative fuel problem and they'll be ready to roll it out to the market at just the right moment.

The bottom line is: they want money and power, and they'll do anything to keep it.

I would count on Big Oil CEO's saving themselves. I wouldn't count on them saving "us."

Gotta agree there, dtrammel. It's always something that's going to happen and keep things running staus-quo, or make things soo much better.

Problem I see is that even with a synthetic substitute, we'd still be dumping tons upon tons of carbon into the environment. We can't maintain things at "status-quo" and survive for much longer, IMHO.

While I'm all for total solutions that tidy up multiple problems at once, they rarely exist in reality. As such, the issue of carbon emissions is an entirely different issue from that of peak oil or petroleum depletion.

However, you're very right. Our addictive overuse of petroleum products would still be problematic and if that's the case then we should be asking if we even want to find a solution to the petroleum crisis. As others have suggested, perhaps the collapse of an oil-based economy is exactly what we (and the planet) need.