Is it possible to combine two problems and end up with something good, or is that simply the stuff of fairy tales?
We have a problem with oil. We seem to need a lot of it and many of the places we’ve been getting it from have serious side effects, like the dictatorial regimes that we buy it from, or the pristine natural areas that we dredge it out of. We spend billions to buy it, send troops in to keep the pipelines open, carry it thousands of miles to get it here, or else drill it ourselves and deal with the likes of Deepwater Horizon or ANWR. Last time I checked we were using 21 million barrels a day, just here in the US. That represents about one-fourth of the total world demand which experts predict will being going up by 29% between 2006 and 2025. All of this is not to mention the fact that burning so much it is wreaking havoc on our climate, and we are running out of at an increasingly rapid pace.
Then there is the problem of solid waste. We spend billions hauling it off somewhere out of site, like China, or else in some land fill where it takes up space, smells bad and often leaches into the ground water. In 1999, we disposed of approximately 274 million tons of mostly municipal waste at an approximate cost of $27 billion, and that was far from all of it.
So what if you could make oil out of trash? How cool would that be? And I’m not just talking about incineration or even methane extraction, which is being done successfully in many locations around the country. I am talking about light sweet crude. The stuff they make gasoline or diesel or jet fuel out of. The stuff that we wish we didn’t need so much of and someday we won’t but right now we do.
Making oil out of trash is better than just siphoning off methane because you are consuming more of the trash and producing more energy. Plus, gas is used primarily for electric generation and heating buildings, both of which have other, cleaner alternatives. Oil is primarily used for transportation, which, at present has fewer viable alternatives today, though the electrics are coming.
Enter a company called Vadxx Energy. They’ve developed a process that turns all kinds of waste into oil. They started just one year ago this month, refining a process that they licensed from Amoco (before they became part of BP) which combines scrap tires, plastics, auto fluff, waste oil, mechanical action, heat and oxygen—all in just the right amounts, and presto, oil comes out the other end. If you’re wondering what auto fluff is; no, it’s not a setting on your clothes dryer, it’s a term recyclers use to refer to all the remaining parts of a car, after all of the useful metals have been reclaimed. Historically, this has been a challenge to recycle and much of it often ends up in landfills.
Now, Vadxx is not the first company to ever develop a process to do this. This 2003 item from the Guardian describes project in Philadelphia that was successfully turning turkey waste into oil. Don’t ask.
According to CEO Jim Garrett, the Vadxx process is unique in four ways:
- They utilize liquids such as waste oil as a heat transfer agent
- It is a continuous process which is far more efficient than a batch process. (The turkey process was a batch process.)
- They have very low capital cost. (For $2 million, they can build a plant capable of producing 90,000 barrels a year)
- They have a low environmental footprint
Besides oil and natural gas, by-products include recoverable metals, solid carbon and airborne emissions, such as NOx, SOx and CO2. The first two can be mitigated with scrubbers. The last is still a problem of course, though it could be argued that many of these waste items would have given off their CO2 as they decomposed in landfills, albeit more slowly.
Located in the tire manufacturing center of Akron, OH, otherwise known as Polymer Valley, their initial focus was on tires, though they have expanded to include many other feedstocks since then. Challenges include meeting the purity standards of gasoline refineries and controlling the feedstocks such as e-waste. With a technically solid team and many years of experience in the oil business and a business model that has them partnering with recyclers, contributing their know-how and equipment in conjunction with the feedstock to produce oil, they seem poised for success.
There’s no question that in the near term at least, oil demand and price will continue to rise. As Jim Garrett told me, “if we don’t strike out, we’re going to hit a home run–there’s no in-between.”
RP Siegel is co-author, with Roger Saillant, of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, about an oil company and the thrills and spills that follow one executive in particular around the world.
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