Chickens into Oil

The spike in gas prices and the instability in the Middle East are energizing interest in oil alternatives such as biodiesel and ethanol. But one company has seized on a way to capitalize on two seemingly disparate problems: diminishing oil reserves and wasted animal carcasses. Their solution? Turn the animal carcasses into oil. Turkey and chicken waste products (guts, blood, and carcasses) that are discarded by the ton each day are now being turned into a "bio oil" fuel that can be refined as diesel or gasoline.

For decades, scientists have attempted to rapidly turn animal carcasses or other biomass solids into liquid fuel. Researchers have been refining the "pyrolysis" process of using extreme heat, pressure and a catalyst that is akin to the natural occurrence that turned dinosaurs into petroleum, according to Dr. Richard Cohen, the Graduate Studies Chairman in the Mechanical Engineering Department of Temple University.

In May, a processing plant in Carthage Missouri began turning turkey guts, feathers, blood and carcasses into an oil alternative. Renewable Energy Solutions, a joint venture between ConAgra Foods and Changing World Technologies, is each day transforming 200 tons of material not suitable for the Thanksgiving table into 500 barrels of bio-derived oil. The poultry leftovers come from a ConAgra turkey processing plant located next door. ConAgra produces about 75 common supermarket brand name foods, including Butterball, Chef Boyardee, Hebrew National and Marie Callender's, while Changing World Technologies specializes in processes that convert waste products into fuel.

"Anything you can do with petroleum out of the ground in Texas you can do with our product," said Terry Adams, the Chief Technology officer of Changing World Technologies. Adams said the company's first customer is blending the bio oil into home heating oil, and it can be refined into a gasoline or diesel fuel substitute. According to Adams, it costs Changing World Technologies about $16 per barrel to create the bio oil, which is competitive with the expense of locating and extracting petroleum.

Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, is skeptical of the scheme, and doubts that using animal waste products to create fuel is financially feasible. Lobb said that petroleum is too cheap and animal protein too valuable to create a market. "There is a well-established channel of using animal rendering for industrial products, feed, and fertilizer," Lobb said.

Adams said that unlike other efforts that attempt to convert materials into oil in a single step, his company developed a two-step pyrolysis process that is more cost effective and fuel-efficient. The company's Thermal Conversion Process breaks down the materials so that minerals and other non-organics such as chlorine can be removed, Adams said. Then, the separated liquid organics go to the second stage of thermal processing to produce hydrocarbon oils.

"The basic idea has been around for the some time," Cohen said. The primary challenges are in creating a fuel that has sufficient lubricity (slipperiness) while minimizing the particulate matter that can "gum up" engines and also keeping the cost down. "Getting this balance right has been one of the main problems in creating bio-fuels," Cohen said.

Adams said the company has plans to open three more processing plants in the United States, each with the capability of creating 1,000 barrels of bio oil per day. "Once we've proven it works with two or three plants, there's no reason why we can't open dozens more," Adams said.

With more than 4 billion tons of agricultural animal waste products being produced each year, Adams said it is theoretically possible to create enough bio fuel to replace all of the imported oil.

The waste is generally channeled for use in dog and cat food, fertilizer and livestock feed. The poultry source material may become more expensive if demand as a fuel source rises.

Robb disagrees with the position that there is a large amount of waste that's available as a fuel source. Nearly 100 percent of poultry products are recycled into something useful, he said, with little going to landfills. "Just because something is inedible doesn't mean it goes to waste." Robb said poultry farmers are comfortable with the payments they receive from rendering companies.

Galen Suppes, associate professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia College said that he's familiar with a number of attempts to commercialize the pyrolysis technology, but they all failed because they were too costly. Suppes said that if Renewable Energy Solutions can keep its cost to $16 per barrel "they should be able to find refineries willing to take their product."

Temple's Cohen said that because animal waste product can spread diseases such as mad cow or avian flu, "making it into fuel makes a lots of sense."

Cohen said that pyrolysis technology was explored during the oil crunch of the 1970's, but the government lost interest when oil prices dropped, and it became cost-prohibitive. Cohen said that with government funding, pyrolysis could have been optimized then, but instead the private sector has struggled in its efforts. "We might be in a lot less of a mess now if we would have spent the money then," Cohen said. "Waiting for the free market to do it independently isn't going to happen."

Cohen believes that fuel made from domestic farm products should be subsidized so that they can reduce the need for foreign oil. "We need to develop economical alternative fuel sources that won't fluctuate (like oil prices)," Cohen said. "This observation seems to be missing from the current president's energy plan."

John Gartner writes about environmental technology and alternative energy from his home in Philadelphia.

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