How To: Fuel Your Car With Thanksgiving Leftovers

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Question: What's greasy, grimy, and surprisingly useful?

Answer: Turkey guts"¦and a lot of other stuff, too. It just depends on how you process it.

If you're reading this, you're probably hip to the concept that Americans (and pretty much everybody else in world) have a bit of an oil addiction and that, unlike some things you could get yourself addicted to, the supplies aren't limitless. So, wouldn't it be great if we could make it ourselves? Produce oil just like the Earth does—through pressure and heat—only faster? No, we haven't been painting in an unventilated room again...

It turns out that DIY oil is not only possible, it's a reality. As you read this, a factory near Carthage, Missouri is turning tons of waste from a nearby turkey slaughterhouse into diesel fuel and fertilizer. How? A little thing called thermal depolymerization.

See, oil is made naturally when carbon (usually in the form of dead plants and animals) gets buried under tons of earth and is then smooshed and heated by the movement of techtonic plates. Needless to say, this takes a while. But, in 2003, a company called Changing World Technologies perfected a way to duplicate this process in a factory in a fraction of a fraction of the time—as little as 15 minutes in some cases. Better yet, because of the way the process works, it's far more energy efficient than any other available method of producing biofuel, yielding 100 British Thermal Units of energy for every 15 BTUs spent in production.

But wait, this gets better. Not only can thermal depolymerization turn turkey into black gold, it can do the same thing with just about any carbon-containing substance—from raw sewage, to old car tires, to cast-off computers. Annnnd, what doesn't get made into oil ends up as other handy products, such as the aforementioned fertilizer or useful industrial chemicals.

So why haven't you heard of this? Frankly, we have no idea. Part of the problem, though, is that when Congress drew up regulations to give biofuel-producing companies a tax break in 2005, they wrote the legislation in a way that excludes thermal depolymerization. This makes it difficult to get investors and to compete with the tax-break-advantaged. Nevertheless, we like thermal depolymerization—with every fiber of our gizmo-loving, tree-hugging being—so we're hoping that if we explain more about how this works, maybe you'll spread the gospel.

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YOU WILL NEED
Pressure
Heat
Some sort of carbon-based waste material

Step 1: Grind it up
Whatever you're starting with, from computer parts to turkey giblets, will need to be chopped and churned into a fine, grainy mess.

Step 2: Add Water
According to a May 2003 Discover magazine article, this is the step that makes Changing World Technology's version of thermal depolymerization unique. Other attempts to recreate the process tried to siphon water away from the waste. CWT figured out that if they add more, then they don't have to heat or pressurize the sludgy glop nearly as much as they would for dry materials—the water helps spread the effect of the heat more efficiently.
Step 3: Depressurize
By quickly pumping the heated, pressurized slop into a depressurization chamber, CWT makes most of the water instantly evaporate out, a necessary step that would take a lot longer and a lot more energy to do by boiling. If you're making oil from turkey, this is the point where powdery fertilizer, chock full of minerals from the bones, settles out.
Step 4: Keep it Hot, Hot, Hot
The remaining liquid is heated to about 900 degrees F and sent through a series of distillers that separate it into natural gas, two different qualities of oil, and powdered carbon. The gas is used to fuel the process and the rest goes up for sale. For about 200 tons of turkey bits, the whole shebang takes less than 24 hours.

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March 20, 2007 - 3:59am
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