Can crude oil be a renewable resource? Conventional fossil fuel takes millions of years to form, but a determined niche of modern alchemists are vastly accelerating the process to brew biocrude, a fuel similar to petroleum that is produced in less than two months from agricultural or municipal waste.
The limited success of Changing World Technologies (CWT), a biocrude pioneer first chronicled by DISCOVER in May 2003, reveals that there are more challenges than meet the eye in creating an environment-friendly, economically viable waste-to-fuel industry. Although the technology works, CWT has yet to turn waste into oil on a scale large enough to be profitable.
CWT’s plant in Carthage, Missouri, uses heat and pressure to process about 78,000 tons of waste per year into up to 9 million gallons of fuel. While the plant can theoretically convert just about anything with a carbon atom, CWT has tuned its process to consume the turkey feathers, guts, heads, blood, and other by-products from a nearby Butterball processing plant. The result is refinery-ready oil, along with by-products such as solid fertilizers and water. But at what price?
The technology is a success only until you factor in CWT’s high operating costs and the increasingly fierce competition for the waste that is the plant’s raw material. The Carthage plant sells an oil product that is unrefined—and therefore less valuable than many other fuels—primarily to industrial boilers at manufacturing facilities. During the first three months of 2008, CWT’s biocrude fetched just $0.99 per gallon. Even with a federal biofuels subsidy of $1 per gallon added in, the plant earned less from its biocrude sales in that quarter than it paid Butterball for its turkey leftovers.
And the cost of agricultural waste is on the rise. Although CWT currently has a supply agreement with Butterball for animal and food processing waste, the turkey company is now looking to sell excess fat and skin to other biofuel companies. Another prospective supplier, poultry giant Tyson Foods, is already partnering with refiner ConocoPhillips to make renewable diesel fuel to supplement conventional diesel at the pump.
To make matters worse, CWT’s other feedstock, municipal waste, is also becoming a hot commodity. Waste-to-electricity innovators have found a variety of methods for turning the rotting mixture in the average garbage truck into a combustible gas (such as methane) that can be burned to produce electricity—an easier process than generating liquid fuels. Despite making the short list for a planned waste-to-fuel conversion project in Los Angeles County in October 2007, CWT ultimately lost out to waste-to-power firms.
A comprehensive review of biofuel options by the independent U.K. Renewable Fuels Agency, released in July 2008, concluded that operational challenges and low-quality fuel would keep biocrude on the margins of world fuel supplies until 2020 at the earliest. As the U.K. review notes, there is already not enough waste available in the European Union to support the E.U.’s target for electricity generation.
Some think CWT will have to reinvent itself in order to compete. Mark Mauss, president of SunsOil, a company that turns vegetable and animal fat into biodiesel, believes the visionary company will succeed. But the scope of CWT’s biocrude effort—turning anything into oil—may be too much for one small start-up, he says.
The good news is that the broader market for alternative fuels keeps growing. According to the International Energy Agency, global reliance on biofuels will more than triple by 2030. Whether or not CWT’s anything-into-oil approach proves viable, it seems that petroleum replacements are here to stay.
Biomass: Living or recently dead plant or animal matter.
Biofuel: Fuel derived from biomass.
Biodiesel: Fuel made from oily plants or cooking wastes. (An early diesel engine ran on peanut oil, demonstrating that farmers could run their vehicles on their own crops.)
Biocrude: An unrefined petroleum-like substance produced from agricultural or municipal waste.
Butterball: The famous brand of turkey, gobbled up since 1954.