TDP: The Next Big Thing

If you are a layperson, it may not be clear to you just how much of the current infatuation with cellulosic ethanol is hype, and how much is based on realistic assessments. So, I thought I would take you down memory lane and revisit another technology that was going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

The Hype: TDP Will Save the World

In May of 2003, Discover Magazine published Anything Into Oil. It was a look at a technology called thermal depolymerization (TDP), which could take any organic material and turn it into oil. This was a high profile write-up with a lot of hype, and the technology of Brian Appel and his company Changing World Technologies (CWT) was really going to change the world.

I remember the first time I read the article, and I thought to myself “Wow, this is really something special.” However, the hype of the technology didn’t quite match up with reality. Let’s take a look back at that original article, and see if we can draw some parallels with some of our current biofuels delusions.

The article starts off:

“This is a solution to three of the biggest problems facing mankind,” says Brian Appel, chairman and CEO of Changing World Technologies, the company that built this pilot plant and has just completed its first industrial-size installation in Missouri. “This process can deal with the world’s waste. It can supplement our dwindling supplies of oil. And it can slow down global warming.”

Pardon me, says a reporter, shivering in the frigid dawn, but that sounds too good to be true. “Everybody says that,” says Appel. He is a tall, affable entrepreneur who has assembled a team of scientists, former government leaders, and deep-pocketed investors to develop and sell what he calls the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP.

So far, so good. An entrepeneur (like Vinod Khosla), former government leaders (like Tom Daschle), and lots of deep-pocketed investors. The article opens with a little bit of hype, and follows with another liberal dose:

“The potential is unbelievable,” says Michael Roberts, a senior chemical engineer for the Gas Technology Institute, an energy research group. “You’re not only cleaning up waste; you’re talking about distributed generation of oil all over the world.”

“This is not an incremental change. This is a big, new step,” agrees Alf Andreassen, a venture capitalist with the Paladin Capital Group and a former Bell Laboratories director.

Yeah, but it’s got to be expensive, right? Not so:

Private investors, who have chipped in $40 million to develop the process, aren’t the only ones who are impressed. The federal government has granted more than $12 million to push the work along.

“We will be able to make oil for $8 to $12 a barrel,” says Paul Baskis, the inventor of the process. “We are going to be able to switch to a carbohydrate economy.”

The article goes on to explain that the technology originated back in the 1980’s:

Usually, the Btu content in the resulting oil or gas barely exceeds the amount needed to make the stuff. That’s the challenge that Baskis, a microbiologist and inventor who lives in Rantoul, Illinois, confronted in the late 1980s. He says he “had a flash” of insight about how to improve the basic ideas behind another inventor’s waste-reforming process.

“The prototype I saw produced a heavy, burned oil,” recalls Baskis. “I drew up an improvement and filed the first patents.” He spent the early 1990s wooing investors and, in 1996, met Appel, a former commodities trader. “I saw what this could be and took over the patents,” says Appel, who formed a partnership with the Gas Technology Institute and had a demonstration plant up and running by 1999.

And they were on the verge of printing money, planning to make oil for $15 a barrel (I thought it was $8-$12?):

And it will be profitable, promises Appel. “We’ve done so much testing in Philadelphia, we already know the costs,” he says. “This is our first-out plant, and we estimate we’ll make oil at $15 a barrel. In three to five years, we’ll drop that to $10, the same as a medium-size oil exploration and production company. And it will get cheaper from there.”

The Hype Begins to Unravel

Well, it’s been 3 to 5 years, and things have not worked out as planned. Costs were much, much higher than forecast. Unforeseen complications appeared. Small technical problems turned out to be big technical problems after the process was scaled up.

Let’s look at some of the issues. A Newsday article in 2004, while also full of hype, foretold of some potential problems:

Turning Garbage into Oil—and Cash

Appel and his financial backers have bet more than $66 million that the modern-day alchemy practiced by Changing World Technologies Inc. will revolutionize the way the world deals with its waste, reduce dependence on foreign oil, fight the spread of mad cow disease and even ease global warming.

Not bad for a 25-person company that Appel, who has no scientific training, runs from the top floor of a Hempstead Avenue china shop owned by his wife, Doreen.

No scientific training? Hmm. Where else have I seen amateurs jumping into an alternative fuel technology with both feet? Oh, yeah. Here and here. (I don’t mean to sound elitist, because amateurs have made valuable contributions in many fields. However, they are more likely to make mistakes/miscalculations than a professional).

The article continues with one more bit of hype that eventually turned out to be unfounded. More on this later:

Incredibly, the only “waste” that’s left behind is distilled water. There are no smokestacks bellowing chemical-laden smoke, and no pipes discharging fetid wastewater.

The article continues by indicating that despite the hype, there really isn’t that much that is known about the process:

Although Discover, Money and Scientific American magazines have all written wildly enthusiastic stories about the company recently — Money called it “The Next Big Thing” — competitors and independent researchers point out that Changing World Technologies has released very little information about the details of its patented process.

So the skeptics (AKA, naysayers) weigh in:

“You have to remember that people have been pressure-cooking different types of biomass for a long time now, and we really haven’t seen these kinds of breakthroughs,” said Ralph Overend, a leading authority in the bio-energy field and a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

“People always stay skeptical until they can see the real data,” added Overend, editor of the academic journal Biomass & Bioenergy.

Appel said the company’s focus has been on building the Missouri plant, not on publishing scientific papers that he worries could tip off potential competitors.

And then there were those nagging cost issues:

Skeptics also wonder about the project’s profitability, and whether it can truly compete with traditional oil drillers and refiners.

Appel acknowledges that producing a barrel of oil through thermal conversion costs about 50 percent more than doing it by conventional refining.

Only 50% more?

And then he makes the mistake that so many others repeatedly make:

If the price of oil keeps rising, he said, so will profits.

This is the same mistake that proponents of tar sands, GTL, oil shale, cellulosic ethanol, and many others have run into. They believe that oil prices will rise, and yet their costs will magically remain where they were. In fact, what happens is that as oil prices rise, all the costs associated with these various projects rise. That’s why oil shale has been imminent for 100 years. That’s why ExxonMobil is scrapping GTL plans. And that’s why tar sands costs have skyrocketed. A poster at The Oil Drum has referred to this trend as The Law of Receding Horizons.

The Bloom Comes off the Rose

So, where does the technology stand today? How far off were those $8 or $15/bbl costs estimates? After all they had run the pilot plants. They had “done so much testing in Philadelphia“, they “already know the costs.” Turns out they didn’t:

Reports from 2005 summarized some economic setbacks which the Carthage plant encountered since its planning stages. It was thought that concern over mad cow disease would prevent the use of turkey waste and other animal products as cattle feed, and thus this waste would be free. As it turns out, turkey waste may still be used as feed in the United States, so that the facility must purchase that feed stock at a cost of $30 to $40 per ton, adding $15 to $20 per barrel to the cost of the oil. Final cost, as of January 2005, was $80/barrel ($1.90/gal).

$80 a barrel! That was an an order of magnitude higher than their earlier estimates. (Incidentally, if their process really worked as they claimed, they could just feed it corn and turn it into oil at a very high EROEI). Not only that, they obviously made more errors in their estimates than just presuming the feedstock would be free. Subtract that $20/bbl and you are still at $60 a barrel – 300% over their highest prior estimate of $15/bbl. Cellulosic ethanol hypesters, take note.

And there was more bad news:

Turkey-oil plant closed due to foul odors

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – A foul-smelling plant that turns turkey byproducts into fuel oil was ordered closed by the governor Wednesday until the company finds a way to clear the air.

Renewable Environmental Solutions Inc. in the southwest Missouri community of Carthage had agreed in May to improve its odor-control systems after state and city officials sued, alleging the smell posed a public nuisance.

The company also was cited six times by state environmental officials this year, Gov. Matt Blunt said, but the smell continued.

Well, at least there were “no smokestacks bellowing chemical-laden smoke.”

The Lesson Here

CWT still exists as a company today. Like cellulosic ethanol, TDP is a technology that actually works. But the technology was hyped beyond reason. People did not apply enough skepticism before embracing the promise of the technology. It was really going to be “the next big thing.”

But costs and complications were grossly underestimated. They fell victim to The Law of Receding Horizons. They learned that the public doesn’t like smelly plants in their community. Discover ran an updated article in 2006 in which Appel admitted “We have made mistakes. We were too aggressive in our earlier projections.” The hype just ultimately did not match the reality. And while TDP may make some small contribution to our energy needs, it isn’t going to make any measurable dent in our fossil fuel usage.

But at least we have cellulosic ethanol, which I have heard really is “the next big thing.”

Postscript

This essay will also appear at The Oil Drum within the next couple of days. That does not, however, mean that I am “back” at TOD. I will not be defending the essay there, as I currently don’t have the time nor the inclination to argue with 20 people. I have an agreement with the staff there that they can use any of my essays from here any time they want, and they wanted to post this one. It will probably be summer, when we have some real news out of Saudi Arabia, before I start posting again at TOD.

25 thoughts on “TDP: The Next Big Thing”

  1. Good article, it’s an interesting read.

    From the article:
    I don’t mean to sound elitist, because amateurs have made valuable contributions in many fields. However, they are undoubtedly more likely to fail than a professional.

    I don’t disagree with you that training and experience helps with any business, but you are off-base on it improving the chance of bringing innovative solutions to market. Established corporations and narrow trained individuals are much better at improving existing technology and poo-pooing new ideas than creating anything new.

    Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask a creative person how they did something, they may feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after awhile. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people have. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. They don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.”
    – Steve Jobs

    Usually the fields that lack innovation are the one’s that are difficult for the small entrepreneur to work in. In the early 1980’s you could build a computer in your garage and build a business around it. Software is still like that to a point. Google and Sun are good examples of people with technical training but no real business training succeeding.

    Again, I don’t mean that education and experience aren’t very helpful in any career or venture, but broad experience and creativity are much more important to innovation, and all in all I think success in innovation and business probably have more to do with perseverance than anything.

  2. Well, they have not given up yet. But, they are still struggling.

    RES to fund independent odor tests
    By Susan Redden
    sredden@joplinglobe.com
    Published March 28, 2007 12:24 am:

    CARTHAGE, Mo. — The state will allow Renewable Environmental Solutions to pay for an independent study of odor problems in Carthage, Doyle Childers, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said Tuesday.

    Brian Appel of RES suggested the study last week, insisting that his company has addressed the odor problems at its plant and is not responsible for smells that have been the source of recent complaints by residents.

    Appel made the offer to the DNR on Tuesday, Childers said.

    “We think it’s an excellent idea to see if what he’s saying is true,” Childers said. “Our offices get complaints, and most people say it’s RES.”

    Childers said he knows that other Carthage businesses have received odor citations in the past, “so I think it would be good for everyone if it resolved some of these issues.”

    “The scentometer is not an exact science, and I’d like to have a good grasp on where the odors are coming from, from an independent third party,” he said.

    Under the agreement, Childers said, DNR officials will select the company that conducts the tests, and RES will pay the bill.

  3. Sounds like GreatPoint Enery. They claim they’ll be able to make gas from coal at $3 per btu and have enlisted lots of investors (khosla in particular) and govt. support from the city of boston/state of mass. The founders are also amateurs. Wonder if you know anything about this?

  4. I don’t disagree with you that training and experience helps with any business, but you are off-base on it improving the chance of bringing innovative solutions to market.

    No, I agree that amateurs have made very important contributions. But, I maintain that they are more likely to make mistakes. I say this because I have a long history of debating Creationists. Some of them fancy themselves as amateur biologists, but as they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. They really don’t know what they don’t know, and it leads to mistakes and erroneous conclusions.

    This is probably why the hype about TDP got out of hand. These guys are amateurs, and while they do have a neat process, they didn’t really know what they didn’t know. So, they didn’t know where the pitfalls would lay, or where costs might be much higher than anticipated. Their cost estimates were so far off precisely because they were amateurs.

    Established corporations and narrow trained individuals are much better at improving existing technology and poo-pooing new ideas than creating anything new.

    I think you will find that the overwhelming majority of new patents come from within established corporations. The reason I have patents is that I am very familiar with what has and has not been done in my area, and where the areas ripe for exploration lay.

    Cheers, RR

  5. 🙂
    As far as I can tell, 7067455 and 7074977 are an improvement on an existing process and you mentioned them in an article poo-pooing someone else’s intiative. I don’t mean to take away from your accomplishments, good for you for coming up with some new processes and getting them patented, but I think that makes my point above.

    Improvements generally come from specialists in a field and large corporations, radically new ideas and products are the realm of the fresh eyes and broad experience and usually the small business.

    That still doesn’t make oil from animal or plant bi-products a scalable energy solution. IMO you are completely right that cellulosic ethanol or even corn ethanol and biodiesel are going to have the same real world scalability and feasibility problems. There is a varied mix in all the companies bringing these ideas forward and whether they are run by specialists in the energy/chemistry field or not, doesn’t make the logistics any better for these products.

  6. 7067455 was a collaborative effort and more or less an incremental improvement, but 7074977 was a radically new way of producing ethylene (sort of like producing oil from garbage). It was a brand new process. But at one level or another, all of these patents – even the radically new ones – have predecessors. If you look at the TDP patents, I guarantee you that they cited prior art. People don’t just invent things unrelated to anything before. They build off existing art.

    Likewise, patent application 20050113247 is an incremental improvement, but 20040138060 was a big departure from prior art. And of all of them, 20050065379 is my pride and joy. I conceived the idea, carried it out to fruition in a pilot plant, and it worked as I had drawn it out. The patent has been granted in Germany (DE10160368) and has been applied for in several other countries. (Incidentally, the only reason that Krumrey is listed as the principal inventor is that German law required the lead inventor to be German).

    Between the ones that have been granted, and the ones that are still working their way through the system, I have a total of around a dozen (U.S. and international). Some are incremental, some are not. So, I really think you are kidding yourself about the radical new idea angle. I think you will find that even the radical new ideas had something that preceded them. There is the rare exception, but even the Einsteins and Newtons built off of existing work.

    Cheers, Robert

  7. you mentioned them in an article poo-pooing someone else’s intiative.

    Incidentally, I meant to address this. If you think I am denigrating someone’s initiative, then you have missed the entire point of the essay. I am denigrating the hype that went along with the initiative. But I would never denigrate initiative.

    Another recent example is Purdue’s addition of hydrogen to a gasification process. They called a press conference and announced that they were applying for patents. If you look through my applications above, you will see that I did this 5 years ago. No press conference. No announcements that my discovery would supply cheap fuel for the world. Hype is a very big problem, and some people swallow it hook, line, and sinker. The purpose of this essay was to take a look at a case of hype that blew up.

    Cheers, RR

  8. Again, I don’t mean to take away from your accomplishments. I read through 20050065379 and I honestly don’t even know what the process is supposed to do, and I don’t think there is any way for an amateur chemist to come up with that (whatever it actually is). Neither am I trying to make a point about improvements not having value or that there is even such a thing as coming up with an idea in isolation. The Steve Jobs quote says exactly the opposite, that invention is just tacking existing experience together in a different way.

    Back to the TDP, cellulosic ethanol point: Coming up with an improved Fischer-Tropsch or other synfuel process is great. Finding out that there isn’t a huge supply of free turkey parts, wheat straw or corn stover already in a massive hopper bin next to where you want to build the plant was due to lack of experience in the agricultural and forestry industry not by lack of chemistry training.

    Finding out there was a simpler solution is genius:
    http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2006/10/cellulosic-ethanol-vs-biomass.html

    I would consider myself an expert in agriculture and if you asked me if there was a scalable energy solution based on wheat straw, I would tell you that the product is not “waste”, is expensive to transport for the energy you could possibly get out of it and if you have a process that requires a centralized plant and hauling it long distances, you are dead in the water before you start, no matter how good your synfuel process is.

    I learned that from burning a lot of wheat straw. You don’t get that much heat out of it to make it worth hauling anywhere. My amateur understanding of chemistry tells me that you can’t make up calories out of nowhere, so it really doesn’t matter how smart your chemist is, it isn’t going to scale.

    If you can come up with a method to upgrade the biomass to something with a higher energy content right at the source, you might have something:
    http://www.shpegs.org/energy_harvester.html

    Which is totally amateur from the chemistry point of view, but not from the agricultural and common-sense point of view.

    Wheat straw biomass still won’t scale to the point of offsetting fossil fuels significantly, but at least the trucking won’t eat up the entire EROEI.

    Again, my point was about narrow experience being the problem with these ideas not that your patents aren’t major accomplishments in your field.

  9. Robert

    If it’s too good to be true in energy, it probably is (I feel that way about some, though not all, of Amory Lovins’ claims).

    However I would say on tar sands that it is a well proven technology. And yes, the costs of new plants are soaring (as with all energy projects at the moment).

    but the fact remains that at $50/bl, sustained over the long term, Canadian companies can make money out of tar sands. Great Canadian Oil Sands and Syncrude have been doing so for 2 decades.

    This will be a 3m b/d industry, and maybe a 5m b/d industry, eventually. Over a 10-20 year time horizon, if we assume that oil prices will sustain over $40/bl say (in today’s money).

    If we assume lower oil prices, that will not happen.

    What it is unlikely to ever be is a 10m b/d industry. By that point, the readily accessible deposits are getting worked out, and the level of assumed development starts to look really huge (plus the water, labour and environmental constraints).

    I know you know a lot more about oil than I’ll ever know, but I think the economic record shows the oil is there in Alberta, and the companies have figured out ways of getting it out of the ground.

    Valuethinker

  10. Back to the TDP, cellulosic ethanol point: Coming up with an improved Fischer-Tropsch or other synfuel process is great. Finding out that there isn’t a huge supply of free turkey parts, wheat straw or corn stover already in a massive hopper bin next to where you want to build the plant was due to lack of experience in the agricultural and forestry industry not by lack of chemistry training.

    Well, there are several piles of free feedstock, waiting to be converted into something useful. Examples include about 300 million scrap tires a year, 245 million tons a year of MSW (of which at least 65% is renewable, sewage sludge, or to be PC, biosolids at about 7 million tons a year(the ultimate renewable resource).

    Then, of course, there is this: The tiny Council School District used to pour thousands of dollars into outmoded oil and electric heaters. Nearby, the Forest Service burned brush piles on the mountainsides to keep the brush from fueling forest fires in dry summers.
    If we are still burning brush piles without thinking of recovering the energy, there must be lots of opportunities for recovering energy from waste…

  11. there must be lots of opportunities for recovering energy from waste…

    I agree, but I think the point of RR’s article and I agree completely is that these are good ideas, but shouldn’t be hyped as “they will solve all of our energy problems”

    Where I don’t agree with RR is that it has anything to do with your chemist, and everything to do with common sense.

    As an example, this is a article on a woodchip boiler installed in a mid-sized milling shop:
    http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/business/story.html?id=e71bf1b9-3e21-4040-90d3-e18fa5694e3b&k=71297
    The large sawmills have been burning biomass for a long time. The increase in the price of NG has made it feasible in smaller shops. This is great.

    But when cellulosic ethanol advocates say there is this huge supply of “free” wood biomass, there isn’t. It’s much simpler to burn it and heat the facility or run a small cogen.

    Another example:
    Close to where our family farm is, one of the neighbors built a large workshop with radiant floor heat. They also built a straw bale boiler for large round bales (6′ diameter, ~1200lbs). They used the bale furnace for a season, but the effort to bale straw, haul it and then have to start a tractor every day in the winter to refill it wasn’t worth the effot. They put in a NG boiler. Straw doesn’t have that much energy in it and it’s bulky.

    So, I agree completely that there are waste products that can be utilized, but the advocates of cellosic ethanol are kidding themselves about how much energy there is in straw and that biomass is “free”. A large portion is being used now, or will take a lot of effort to recover and that makes TDP or cellulosic ethanol “interesting” but they shouldn’t be hyped as significant in the big energy picture.

    Saying biomass is “free” is like saying that everything else from a gasoline refinery is a biproduct and they will give diesel away for free. They won’t and neither will the forestry industry or agriculture.

    That is just common sense.

  12. Rohar,
    I agree with much of what you say. Exceptions being:
    A large portion is being used now, or will take a lot of effort to recover…
    This is thinking about the problem the wrong way as far as I am concerned. Try to image this: no energy crops and no new collection/recovery (at first). Just start with what is available at existing waste disposal sites, in large quantities. Once you have made a dent using what is freely available and used the opportunity to R&D technology, you’d be in a good position to look at collection and perhaps energy crops.

    Starting with food, as we currently do, is starting at exactly the wrong end. And the legacy of this stupidity (such as more expensive food) will give renewable energy a bad name for decades to come.

    It’s much simpler to burn it and heat the facility or run a small cogen.
    Yes and no. I like burning biomass for heat – it is probably quite efficient, often minimizes transportation of the biomass and saves fossil fuel use.

    Cogen is something else. IMHO, the country does not have an electricity shortage, it has a liquid fuels shortage. This may change in the distant future, if electric cars or PHEV become widely available. But for now, we need to focus on liquid fuels, for reasons that vary from environmental to economic to security.

    Of course, a personal virtue such as conservation would also work wonders…

  13. This is thinking about the problem the wrong way as far as I am concerned.

    I have my thoughts on electricity here:
    http://www.shpegs.org/background.html

    My design methodology is:

    To realize what you have: In the case of Western Canada, it’s: cheap land, high summer solar isolation, cold winters.

    Realize what you need or has value: In Canada, I have a well insulated home but I spend more on heating than transportation. The
    http://www.shpegs.org/background.html
    link explains why farming could be feasible with electricity but has seen a steady decline in profitability with Diesel.

    To figure out what “features of nature” you can leverage: Fossil fuels, wind and hydroelectric are feasible because they take advantage of nature. The SHPEGS efficiency comes in from daytime/summer heating changing the air temperature much more quickly than the shallow earth. Solar PV and direct solar steam have a problem in that they don’t attempt to use a feature of nature and scale linear.

    And then build a system:
    http://www.shpegs.org

    Using waste resources is great. Coming up with a chemisty process and then looking around for a “magic” input source is the problem with hyping ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, TDP or anyting else a chemist dreams up as a large scale solution. That is the backwards design. Coming up with the process first and then looking for an input source, and that is where I disagree with RR. The problem with TDP wasn’t that they didn’t have enough scientific training, the problem was that they had too much.

    It’s much easier to create transportable energy products from Natural Gas than wood chips. It makes way more sense to just burn the wood chips in a cogen right where they are produced and save retail gas and electricity and then run your car on NG or a NG product.

    Again, that is just common sense and there is nothing to patent in that.

  14. Coming up with a chemisty process and then looking around for a “magic” input source is the problem with hyping ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, TDP or anyting else a chemist dreams up as a large scale solution. That is the backwards design. Coming up with the process first and then looking for an input source, and that is where I disagree with RR.
    Where did you get this? As I pointed out in a previous post, there are plenty of waste heaps waiting to be exploited. CWT (the current owners of TDP) are looking for clients, which is not quite the same as looking for feedstock. This is how they got to turkey guts – Conagra was willing to sign a check.

    The problem with TDP wasn’t that they didn’t have enough scientific training, the problem was that they had too much.
    CWT has many problems, much of it stemming from the bad engineering their original cost model was based on, including, but not limited to overestimating efficiency and yield, not taking energy losses in the “distilled” water and steam byproduct into account, etc.

    Whatever caused these critical errors, it certainly was not too much scientific training. Quite the contrary…

  15. Again, that is a narrow view. You need to look at the bigger picture.

    Agricultural and society was sustainable up until around 1940 or so. Farmers shared their ideas with the community for the benefit of all. “Better Living Through Modern Chemistry” put us in the place we are in.

    A small mixed farm was completely energy self-sufficient until 1940 and didn’t have massive “waste” to get rid of. What manure was created went back on the field. Rudolf Diesel designed his engine to run on peanut oil to help the small factory (or farm) compete with large business.

    The Petroleum and Chemical Engineer “fixed” that for us, urbanized society and put us where we are today.

    Good luck expecting these guys to get us back out, and if they do find something that can replace fossil fuel, it will be so locked up in patents and IP protection that nothing will change significantly.

  16. Rohar,
    I think you are romanticizing the past. Let’s not forget that technology has eliminated many of the back-breaking, boring, soul-destroying jobs of yesteryear, improving everybody’s quality of life. It is always tempting to long for the good old days when things were so much simpler. Romantic, but not real.

    Of course, technology also bring change, and change is never popular. But change is inevitable, due to the fact that it’s an improvement (of one sort or another), or else we all won’t be doing it.

    A small mixed farm was completely energy self-sufficient until 1940 and didn’t have massive “waste” to get rid of.
    Maybe. It was also much less efficient than today’s larger operations, which is why things changed. Think of it as improved productivity in food production.

    Rudolf Diesel designed his engine to run on peanut oil to help the small factory (or farm) compete with large business.
    Rudolf Diesel had the small guy in mind? That’s news to me. The fact is in today’s world there aren’t enough peanuts to supply much energy. What peanuts we do produce should be consumed as food.

    Good luck expecting these guys to get us back out…
    Who else are you banking on? Lawyers? Politicians? Bean counters? Hollywood actors? LOL! We are stuck with the engineers, one of life’s many little realities.

    …it will be so locked up in patents and IP protection that nothing will change significantly.
    What? You expect these guys to save the world free of charge? Just why would anyone do that? Being “locked up in patents and IP protection” does not preclude change, as Bill Gates showed…

    Again, that is a narrow view.
    How is that? Please explain why it is narrow.

  17. Who else are you banking on?
    Me.
    Rudolf Diesel had the small guy in mind?
    Yes, look it up. His career also ended when he got thrown in the English Channel. Peanuts weren’t the point, the point was the engine precluded petroleum products and was designed for plant oils.

    Maybe. It was also much less efficient than today’s larger operations, which is why things changed. Think of it as improved productivity in food production.

    I own 1280 acres of prime Canadian farm land and would be a 4th generation farmer if grain farming wasn’t an unfeasible way to try and make a living. I grew up doing chores and have first hand experience with “back-breaking” labor and am not in the least bit nostalgic.

    We are not going back to farming with horses, we can’t farm with Diesel and NH3 from NG.

    Again, my thoughts on how to make farming feasible and produce food and energy products cleanly are here:
    http://www.shpegs.org/background.html

    I don’t expect anyone to do anything for free (except for myself and that’s my choice). I believe that applying the Open Source software development methodology to the energy problem can provide jobs and revenue streams the same as has for software (Red Hat vs. Microsoft). There is still plenty of potential to earn a profit, to patent sub-components and manufacture them and to build and operate renewable power plants, but the mega-corporation vs. the community is the problem we have to fix.

  18. We are not going back to farming with horses, we can’t farm with Diesel and NH3 from NG.
    Well the diesel and the NG is getting more expensive, but it won’t run out for a while. I bet as fuels get more expensive farmers will figure out ways to do things more efficiently.

    I am with you on the nitrogen. See if you can spot the opportunity here:
    1. We burn up a lot of NG (or coal) to manufacture ammonia from molecular nitrogen.
    2. We burn up a lot of electricity to convert the ammonia back into molecular nitrogen (at wastewater treatment plants).

    …but the mega-corporation vs. the community is the problem we have to fix.
    This gets a bit off topic. RR would point out that the mega-corporation consists of people like you and me, both as employees and owners (the latter usually through a 401(k) plan.)

    The bigger problem, as I see it, is unbridled capitalism. Capitalism has become a holy cow in the USA and no-one is allowed to touch it. But, at the end of the day, unbridled capitalism push people to the extremes, the rich gets super-rich and the poor gets exploited.

    For capitalism to work poperly government has a very important role to play, starting with making sure that a good education is available to all, so that the children of the poor get a fair shot at the apple.

    But, hey, I don’t see today’s politicians rising to the challenge. Make no mistake, they are the best money can buy…

    …the point was the engine precluded petroleum products and was designed for plant oils.
    Not sure what Herr Diesel’s intent was, but his product clearly did not “preclude petroleum products.”

    http://www.shpegs.org/background.html
    Keep chipping away! Someday you (and others like you) may yet convert the world to electric drive. Personally, I’m not giving up on the ICE just yet…

  19. ..may yet convert the world to electric drive. Personally, I’m not giving up on the ICE just yet…

    Due to the high weight, low travel speed and distance compared to passenger vehicles, there are a lot of things that are easier to implemented with farm equipment than cars.

    Compressed gas container storage weight wouldn’t be much of an issue on a 20 tonne tractor and doesn’t have to stand up to impact safety tests past 6 mph. Bio-gas methane used directly or cracked to hydrogen and burned in a ICE conversion would probably be quicker to market than large scale electric tractors.

    There is this idea:
    http://www.shec-labs.com/
    The pilot plant is at the landfill at Regina, a few km from where I live. The SHEC labs hydrogen thing might end up like TDP (it has a lot of similarities)

    The Iron Creek Hutterite Colony has had their anaerobic digestion methane co-gen running on their pig farm for several years.

    http://www.innovationalberta.com/article.php?articleid=247
    http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/newslett.nsf/all/gm10920

    Wood gas pyrolysis is another idea:
    http://www.agri-therm.com/

    These ideas are more in the scale of recycling, but I would think a large mixed pig operation could produce enough methane to at least offset some of the tractor fuel.

  20. While I certainly agree that Appel was guilty of hyping TDP, I am not sure that he was off that much on his actual cost estimates. When he gave a “cost” of ~15 $/bbl for his oil, it appears to me that he was talking as a salesman, and what he meant by “cost” was “what we can sell it for and not lose money”.

    According to various sources, such as this one, “Appel expected his company to be paid about $24 per ton of feedstock as a disposal fee”, which, at an assumed conversion rate of 2.4 bbl/ton, is a raw materials cost of -10 $/bbl.

    He was expecting a 42 $/bbl government subsidy.

    A simple model of (all costs per bbl) final_cost = raw_material_cost + conversion_cost – government subsidy, gives $15 = $-10 + conversion_cost – $42, gives a conversion_cost = 67 $/bbl.

    At the time the costs were being given at ~80 $/bbl, the government subsidy had not yet materialized, and the raw materials cost were (optimistically) ~13 $/bbl (~30 $/ton, also from here, and an assumed conversion rate of ~2.3 bbl/ton), and a conversion_cost (from above) of 67 $/bbl, then the final_cost = $13 + $67 – $0 = $80 (per bbl).

    One can, of course, use other numbers. A conversion rate of ~2.3 bbl/ton is probably too high in practice; a better number could be used as “upwards of $30 a ton”. These better numbers tend to lower the conversion cost estimates at the 80 $/bbl cost. At 40 $/ton for turkey waste, and a conversion rate of 2 bbl/ton, the increased raw material cost (20 $/bbl) results in a estimated conversion cost of only 60 $/bbl to result in the 80 $/bbl cost.

    And we don’t know if, or how, the fertilizer sales are being figured into CWT’s 80 $/bbl cost.

    But it appears to me the type of calculation above suggest two things. The first, and more interesting, suggestion is that the conversion cost of using TDP to convert turkey offal to oil (for CWT) seems to be in the 60-70 $/bbl range, and the second, and less interesting, suggestion that the cost of ~15 $/bbl trumpeted by Appel, while arguably misleading, indicates that the actual costs of the Carthage plant are not wildly off CWT’s original estimates of the cost, with the difference in costs being political (rather that technical) misjudgments about 1) the availability of government subsidies and 2) an expected change in the government’s regulations concerning the sale of turkey offal for other purposes, which would have changed turkey offal from a salable produce to waste that needs to be disposed of.

    Or I could be missing some significant point completely with the above analysis not being relevant to anything.

  21. Revisiting an old topic, if RES’s costs for #2 distillate are still in the $60-$70/bbl range and crude oil is selling at ~$100/bbl now it rather looks like their ship has finally come in. Anyone heard any news lately?

  22. Mr. Rapier,

    I think you have dismissed CWT too quickly. They are successfully making oil out of bio-materials in Carthage, MO.

    It took longer than they planned and cost more, but it is working and is sustainable.

    They claim TCP process converts 80% of the energy.

    Ironically, they will be more successful in the EU than in the US due to the factors you blogged about.

    I think TCP is real, not hype.

    Back to you.

  23. Rick,

    An interesting approach to the "costs" of this process. If you are right, and you could be, then RR is still correct in saying the problem here is hype. Being able to produce at a NET cost of $8-12/bbl after being paid to take the feedstock, and a massive government subsidy, is very different to saying "a COST of $8-12/bbl".

    At the very least Appel is being economical with truth, if not downright misleading. The fact that there has been massive loss of investor and government money, lawsuits, regulator ordered shutdowns, etc suggests the latter.

    AS for what Anonymous has said, you should check their website first. It is full of outdated information, and very short on hard data. It even lists a whole bunch of supportive emails and Tweets, like a celebrity fan site. This is no substitute for real data, and you have not provided any data to back up your, or their claim of 80% energy conversion.

    If the process was that good, every meat packing plant in the continent would be beating a path to their door, and that clearly is not happening.

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