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Comments on 'Changing World Technologies' Plan to
Turn Garbage into Oil

PAUL PALMER, Ph.D., CHEMIST / Getting To Zero Waste 9apr2005

Paul Palmer, Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, Yale 1973*

[More on Changing World Technologies]

 

Q
Mr. Palmer: Is there anything specific that you know to be inaccurate or misleading about our story on turkey fuel?
                                                                      -- Dan Goodgame, managing editor, Fortune Small Business (FSB)

A
Dan: First of all, when I discuss these bogus claims I am not restricting myself to your article alone. These snake oil salesmen have been peddling their little story thru a number of media starting with Discover magazine in May 2003. I have been pointing out to anyone who will listen how fraudulent it all is ever since then.

This deception starts with the ignorance of the American public who have bought the convenient story that there is such a thing as garbage. In fact there are ten million different kinds of products that become excess. They are all radically different. But the public chooses to believe that it can all be summed under the rubric of garbage and once you do that, all those radically different inputs have now suddenly become the same thing. Then we are fed the delusion that all we need to do is "get rid of it". It doesn't really matter how. We have had serious suggestions that we can fill up the Grand Canyon with it, cause it to disappear in molten salts, in plasma fusion devices and in garbage treatment plants called Materials Recovery Facilities. Or put it all in rocket ships headed for outer space. All of these proposals that got into trials share some important characteristics. They make huge profits for the garbage industry and the public pays up front for all the costs. Now along comes one more scheme for playing on the gullibility of a public that is so dumb it actually believes that a complex technological society, such as ours, can rip and strip the earth of all its resources, use them transiently, then somehow destroy them all, and still continue to leave a thriving planet for future generations. As though the earth is some kind of a magic lamp we can rub and the genie will continue to bestow upon us any gift we request. This concept is idiotic, and any company that seeks to effectuate the "getting rid of" part of this scheme is selling a bill of goods leading to planetary suicide. But this may not be sufficiently specific to your article to satisfy you.

I will back up to the beginning and pick apart the very heading of the article that began this all in Discover. It began with the heading "Anything into Oil" and proceeded in the article to flesh this out so: "The process is designed to handle almost any waste product imaginable, including turkey offal, tires, plastic bottles, harbor-dredged muck, old computers, municipal garbage, cornstalks, paper-pulp effluent, infectious medical waste, oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores. " Now in your article, you, or the claimants, hoping no doubt to have a prayer of passing the giggle test, have backed off a bit by only saying this much: "The company says its process works on tires, various hazardous wastes, and plastic as well as heavy metals. " Most emphatically none of this can pass the giggle test but let me ask you, do you understand what is being said here? You are saying that this company has a process which can turn steel into oil (just to select one of the more obvious idiocies). Do you know that steel is almost a pure element, namely iron, which no chemical process can convert to carbon? Are you familiar with the alchemist's search for transmutation in which they tried to turn base metals into gold? At least they didn't turn base metals into carbon and hydrogen, which is pretty much what oil is. This conversion just happens to contravene the laws of physics as presently understood. Is that a good enough indictment of the frauds being perpetrated by these PR mavens?

Now let's look a little further, to the subheading "Technological savvy could turn 600 million tons of turkey guts and other waste into 4 billion barrels of light Texas crude each year ". Apply a bit of that skepticism that journalism once relied on. How many pounds is 600 million tons. Multiply 600,000,000 by 2000 to get 1200 billion pounds. Now lets look at the oil. Depending on your definition of barrel, one of them weighs 300 to 400 pounds. So multiply 4 billion by 300 and you get 1200 billion pounds. What a strange coincidence! These phoneys say they can turn every pound of mixed water, dirt, rocks, paper, steel, acetone, tars, polyethylene, concrete (and oh, yes, turkey scraps too) into one pound of - are you ready for this - not just oil, not just a grease derivative, but light Texas crude. The loaves and fishes story has now been left in the dust. Jesus must be biting his nails with regret that he didn't think of this.

Consider now the thrust of the article as it seeks to motivate such legerdemain. How is this magical trick to be done? Why, with thermal depolymerization! Surely any word with seven syllables has got to be capable of practically anything. Not only are we going to hit all of this mixed mass with seven syllables, we are going to mimic in minutes, the very process that the poor, ineffective earth takes millions of years to carry out, namely the conversion of turkey guts into petroleum. Did I hear right? These people have become experts on the origins of petroleum, a topic which is energetically debated by real scientists? Not only that, the process which forms petroleum in the earth is now revealed to be none other than thermal depolymerization. I don't know the chemical reactions that produce petroleum, but given the complex molecules and polymers in petroleum, I would have thought they would include the very opposite concept, synthesis and polymerization, not depolymerization. However, how sexy would it be to claim that you are producing an oil by a process having nothing in common with natural processes?

I could go on forever in this vein, but let me deal with the heart of the claims, in every publication I have read on this subject, including yours. It is the drumbeat of wonder that pervades the writing, the notion that this is something unique and previously unknown. Do you know what is being described here? A mountain of turkey guts, consisting of protein, water, grease, saccharides, bones and more is being subjected to steam. Out of all this, the grease is melted, steamed out, and collected. All the rest of it is left over. Some protein may be actually depolymerized leaving amino acids or just protein fragments. Most everything else is probably unchanged. As a pure guess, I would guess that 90% of the mass passes thru without significant change. Feathers, bones, dirt, are not going to be affected and if they are, or were, their breakdown products don't even resemble oil (excuse me, Texas light crude).

Let me speak to the attitude of marvel you surround this trivial operation with. This is something I learned to do from my mother and my guess is you did too. How many times have I put a turkey or chicken carcass into a pot of boiling water, cooled it down and skimmed off the grease? Is this a revolutionary technological breakthrough in your book?

But this is different you say. This is depolymerization. Can you explain to me what the polymers are that we are talking about here? Since you are not chemists yourselves, did it ever occur to you to actually ask a technically competent scientist what chemical process was being described? Obviously not, or you would never have written your silly article.

I have no idea whether all of that investment, and million dollar grant and plant building portion of the article is based on any reality whatsoever. I personally don't believe a word of it, but I base that only on my core belief that the companies and investors mentioned could not possibly be so gullible as to be able to be fooled by transparently impossible claims. But maybe I am wrong. The person who is charged with knowing, with actually investigating these claims is the author. I doubt that she did any of that.

Let me finish with one qualification. I have no doubt that this absurdly wasteful society is capable of producing mountains of animal trimmings with no plan whatsoever for further handling it. I believe that someone could put into place a plan to steam the mixed animal waste and extract the oils from it, for what that could be worth. I doubt that the energy value of the recovered oil would be even close to the energy input required to recover it. But that is why scientists who can do energy calculations are hired to do them. I have read a ton of publicity emanating from this company and I have never seen a shred of a careful calculation of anything. All I read is openmouthed, gee-whiz adulation of any claim these people put out. I have never seen any report by anyone that suggested they had seen any machinery actually depolymerizing anything. Until some unbiased, skeptical investigator, not awed by pie-in-the-sky claims, tests out and calculates theoretical yields and inspects machinery, inputs, and outputs, I will remain a total skeptic.

                                             -- Paul Palmer, PhD.

 


Letter to one of the many readers taken in by the Discover Magazine article called
"Anything Into Oil" on magical solutions to the non-existent "problem" of garbage:

I was extremely disappointed to see you giving publicity to an article about thermal depolymerization creating fuel oil. You should be more critical in your assessment of wild claims in the environmental field.

This whole "field" ( I am loathe to so dignify it ) started with a company that embarked on a fraudulent program to milk the public of its tax funds by idiotic claims which had the great advantage of promising a gullible public exactly what it wanted to hear. They claimed that they could (1) get rid of all garbage without the burden of any intelligence or responsibility and (2) get a free unending source of energy. This specious fraud had the good fortune (from the point of view of the snake oil salesmen involved ) to be uncritically picked up by Discover magazine over a year ago and granted a euphorically adoring article which conned a generation of environmentalists and is apparently going to cast its fraudulent ripples in ever widening circles. In the course of that article, they selected "Thermal Depolymerization" as their genie in the bottle which needed merely to be rubbed to create a cornucopia of gifts. As a chemist, depolymerization is, to me, a perfectly ordinary chemical process possessing no allure or mystery. Apparently to a public with hardly any decent scientific education any more, it is romantic and pregnant with magical promise. In the course of the article in Discover magazine, we learned many interesting things. We learned that 100 pounds of undifferentiated garbage could produce 150 pounds of clear, golden fuel oil, in contradiction of the laws of conservation of matter. We learned that even refrigerators, by the application of this fifth dimensional force could be turned into golden fuel oil. We also had the chance to take note, if we could be so cynical, that no one reported or claimed that they actually saw the Rube Goldberg machinery pictured actually produce anything. God forbid someone would have inspected it, or asked one single incisive question, or run any tests. All we were told was that the Oilmeister with a huge grin produced the finished oil in a flask for journalistic inspection. Was that a partial can of Pennzoil 30 weight I noticed him holding behind his back?

The success of this bogus demonstration is unbelievable. Is there nothing too outlandish, absurd, self-contradictory or medieval for the American public to swallow. I offered to do an expose for Skeptical Inquirer but they demurred. Too technical I assume. Are there no technical skeptics left. Thank goodness the Patent Office long ago was forced to reject all Perpetual Motion machines, otherwise we would be installing one in every "environmentally clean" vehicle.

In the Discover treatment, turkey guts were only a portion of the input, and that viewpoint persists also in the Fortune article: "The company says its process works on tires, various hazardous wastes, and plastic as well as heavy metals." However in order to try to pass the laugh test, they are now concentrating on turkey guts. As if there were ever any problem grinding up and steaming the animal fat out of turkey parts - excuse me depolymerizing it!

Has anyone ever challenged a single one of the idiotic and grandiose claims of these turkey oil salesmen? Apparently not. They seem to be unstoppable, with their claims of millions of dollars of investment from every gullible company they report. I have no information about this, but I suspect that big companies are just a bit too canny to throw millions of dollars into such a technically juvenile scheme. They still employ chemists, last I heard. But gullible journalists - no end to them.

                                      -- Paul Palmer, Ph.D.

 


*ABOUT DR. PALMER

Paul Palmer holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from Yale. In 1973, he learned that the chemical industry in general, but especially the newly emerging electronics industry in Silicon Valley, were discarding enormous amounts of perfectly usable industrial chemicals. He became convinced that pathways for reusing these chemicals could be found and that reworking and/or reselling them could be the basis of a profitable business. For this purpose, he founded Zero Waste Systems (ZWS) to recycle every kind of excess chemical. This was the first instance of the institutional use of the phrase "Zero Waste". ZWS did not specialize in any one kind of chemical or any one kind of processing, which made it unique in the world. In fact, it was the first company to take this approach and the last. The business plan is valid enough but the enforcement of a garbage mentality by the government is so pervasive today that intelligent management of chemical excesses has become all but impossible. This subject is treated extensively in the book. ZWS broke ground in many ways, Based on its unique mission, it achieved a worldwide reputation. It was the only corporation to join the Sierra Club. It was the subject of many EPA sponsored studies. It strained for the highest possible technical competence, employing chemists and building an analytical laboratory and library. At one point, ZWS ran a laboratory chemicals recycling program which gave it the largest inventory of laboratory chemicals in California, all for sale at discount prices to the public. At various times, it recycled virtually every single excess chemical produced in the electronics industry such as resist developer, resist rinse, reflow oil, isopropanol, freon, phosphoric, sulfuric, hydrochloric, hydrofluoric and acetic acids, alkaline etch and more. Though public and official praise flowed in, ZWS never could obtain one penny of government support for any of its work.

At its height, ZWS employed about twenty employees at two locations in Oakland California. It came to an end for reasons unrelated to its actual work.

Throughout this time, Paul Palmer strove to understand the true theoretical underpinnings of the world of recycling. While many environmentalists were claiming, as they continue to today, that chemicals were not recyclable, he realized that chemicals were among the most easily recycled goods there are. His understanding of recycling was forged in the furnace of the day-to-day requirements of dealing not only with industry, but also government and the rising tide of restrictive regulation.

Though the author continues to work as a chemical broker today, his insights are unique among chemical brokers partly because he explicitly searches for the theoretical parallels between chemical recycling and all other kinds of recycling and because his advanced technical background gives him a wide window on the technical aspects of recycling. As a member of the Sonoma County Local Waste Management Task Force and a former chairman of the Sonoma County Hazardous Materials Management Commission, he has been extensively involved in local garbage politics as well.

source: http://www.gettingtozerowaste.com/bookfiles/author.html 9apr2005

 

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