From the July 2004 Idaho Observer:

From manure to crude in 30 minutes

URBANA, Ill. -- Type “hog manure crude oil” into the Google search engine and you find several articles about a University of Illinois research team that is working on a process that converts farm waste into a form of crude oil that could be refined into products capable of generating electricity and heating homes.

The Associated Press recently reported that, “a similar process is being used at a plant in Carthage, Mo., where tons of turkey entrails, feathers, fat and grease from a nearby Butterball turkey plant are converted into a light crude oil, said Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for Omaha, Neb.-based Conagra Foods, which operates the plant in a joint venture with Changing World Technologies of Long Island, N.Y.”

Tom Macy of Post Falls recalls reading about waste-to-oil in Popular Science magazine in 1953. Though results were as favorable then as they are now and the U.S. has no shortage of manure and turkey entrails, we are being told that it may be years before the idea could become commercially viable.

The U of I research team is led by Dr. Yanhui Zhang, an associate professor of agriculture and biological engineering. Zhang, et. al, have been fine-tuning a continual thermochemical conversion process that uses high heat and up to 30 atmospheres of pressure to break down the molecular structure of manure -- a process that rearranges it into forms of crude oil.

This conversion mimics the natural processes that transform biological matter into oil over centuries, but accomplishes the conversion in as little time as a half an hour.

Many people believe that oil reserves have reached their peak production capabilities. Oil that already costs around $40 a barrel will only increase in price as demand continues to increase while recoverable supplies dwindle. Oil is also being credited for causing war and strife in the oil-producing regions as nations and powerful corporate interests struggle to control diminishing supplies of the valuable liquid.

Dr. Zhang believes that his team's efforts are timely. “This is making more sense in terms of alternative energy or renewable energy and strategically for reducing our dependency on foreign oil,” he said.

Dr. Zhang predicts that someday a gizmo the size of a home furnace will be able to process the waste from 2,000 pigs and generate barrels of crude for as little as $10 each. Pork producers will be glad to turn their waste into oil as some operations generate thousands of tons of manure each year -- a problem that is both expensive to deal with and annoying to neighbors.

To our knowledge there is not shortage of manure or other animal waste products predicted in the near future. It is also expected that, in time, other waste materials may be thermochemically converted into viable sources of energy.

Dr. Zhang believes that existing refineries are not likely to take crude oil from converted manure and other animal products because they would have to retool their equipment to handle the new products. He does believe, however, that the raw product can be used to take the place of traditional crude in many applications such as heating, electricity generation, ink, asphalt and the production of plastics. “Crude oil is our first raw material. If we can make it value-added, suddenly the whole economic picture becomes brighter.”

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