The thermal conversion process is probably the only practical large-scale method of dismantling prions, the proteins that cause mad cow disease. Although the process has never been specifically used to destroy prions, Jefferson Tester, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT, says he's confident that the proteins would be ripped apart and rendered harmless by such extreme temperatures and pressures.
Mad cow disease is thought to spread via the common American practice of feeding rendered animal parts back to animals. Appel assumed that the United States, like most modern nations, would ban the practice, creating more demand for his machinery to process leftover animal parts. In 1997 the government did ban feeding beef parts to beef cattle, but turkey and chicken cannibalism are still legal.
"We thought we would get $24 a ton for taking the waste," says Appel. "Instead, we are paying $30 a ton." That alone raises his production costs about $22 a barrel.
Which brings us to why Appel and his technology are likely to move to Europe. As the United States has crawled toward making its food supply safer, Europe has sprinted, eager to squelch mad cow disease as well as to stanch global warming and promote renewable energy. The result is a cornucopia of incentives for thermal conversion. Last summer Appel gave presentations to government officials and private investors throughout Europe, and the company is planning projects in Wales, Ireland, England, and Germany. Europeans are making the pilgrimage to the Carthage plant. In May Renewable Environmental Solutions ran 360 tons of beef waste through the Carthage plant for a visiting delegation from Irish Food Processors, the biggest beef operation in the British Isles. The Irish newspaper Sunday Tribune wrote that CEO Larry Goodman "is understood to be planning a biofuel facility . . . and hopes to have it built by next year."
The transatlantic lovefest is no wonder. In Ireland, plant operators would get an astronomical $50 per ton to haul slaughterhouse waste away, another $30 per ton in carbon dioxide emissions-reduction credits, a guaranteed price of up to $92 per barrel, and a 20-year price guarantee. "In a 500-ton-per-day plant, our production costs would be under $30 a barrel, and we could sell for about $100 a barrel," Appel says. "It's just amazing."
Only three states—California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—have incentives that could make the process financially worthwhile for Appel. But he is encouraged by a study commissioned by an automakers' consortium showing that the thermal conversion process could be a solution to one of America's most vexing solid waste problems: the unholy mix of plastics and other leftovers from automobile metals recycling (see "Junkyard Oil," below). "If we do build a plant for that, it will likely be based in Michigan," Appel says.
Until recently, Appel was developing a "leave-behind strategy for us as a company and planning to set up in Europe only." Now he believes there will be some plants built in the United States as well. "I am just so happy to be making oil," he says. "I want to deploy this technology everywhere."
American recyclers deftly pluck nearly all the metal from the 15 million cars junked each year, but up to 4.5 million tons of residual debris goes straight to landfills. Known as auto shredder residue, it is a virtually unrecyclable mix of at least 36 kinds of plastic, along with treated fabrics, rubber, and nylon.
Last May representatives of USCAR—a research consortium made up of DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and General Motors—along with the Argonne National Laboratory and the American Plastics Council arranged a test in which Changing World Technologies ran 3,000 pounds of the awful stuff through its Philadelphia pilot plant.
"The process is brilliant," says Candace Wheeler, a GM research scientist. "There are substances of concern in shredder residue such as PCBs, and traditional incineration of chlorinated plastics can make dioxins." But, she says, the preliminary test results indicate that the hydrolysis at the heart of the thermal conversion process breaks down the PCBs and converts the chlorine into hydrochloric acid. "No PCBs. No dioxins. No emissions," says Wheeler, noting that the principal output of the process was a "light oil" that could be used at an electric power generation plant. "It looks good from all perspectives," she says. "We think it has great potential."
Every organic gardener knows the pang of watching a neighbor blithely squirt chemical fertilizer on his vegetable garden. Sure, the schlub has no respect for nature's elegant cycles, but look at those zucchini!
Such envy could soon become history. Along with oil, the thermal conversion process cranks out a liquid fertilizer that "works a great deal like some of the instant-gratification fertilizers out there," says Jim Freiss, vice president of engineering for Changing World Technologies. Featuring 9 percent nitrogen, 1 percent phosphorus, 2 percent potash, and 19 amino acids, it is, in essence, "an organic Miracle-Gro," he says. "In the organic industry, these kinds of nutrient concentrations are unheard-of. The best that's out there is on the order of 6 percent nitrogen."
Tests on tomato and pepper plants conducted by Joseph Kloepper, professor of plant pathology at Auburn University in Alabama, confirmed the fertilizer's potency. "In my experience," he wrote in a summary paper, "it is rare to find a biological product that demonstrates such a consistent promotion of overall plant growth and root growth on two crops in two different field soils."
Fertilizer-industry officials are excited as well. "Because it has been through high temperatures, there is no coliform bacteria or any of the other problems often associated with organic fertilizers such as manures," says Raj Mehta, president of Organica Biotech, a manufacturer of nonsynthetic fertilizers and pesticides. "I'm convinced there will be a large market for this."