By Mark H. Reddig
Back in the legendary good old days of trucking, fuel was cheap, all oil came from Texas – which had plenty – and truckers’ worst worries included bad roads and seats that weren’t much more than a leather skin over a peach crate.
These days, things are a little different.
The roads are better – depending on where you are or who you ask – and the seats are definitely improved. But not that much of our oil comes from Texas anymore, and we’re paying plenty to pump it into the tank.
Since September, crude oil prices have hovered near or above $50 a barrel, and diesel has set records with prices above $2 virtually everywhere in the country.
What’s a trucker to do?
Well, necessity is the mother of invention, and with so many truckers in need and a limited amount of crude oil on the planet, inventors have been kicking into high gear.
Across the United States, individuals and companies have been working on real-world, practical alternatives to traditional sources of diesel, sources that can be used – or already are being used – in today’s truck engines.
Some of these technologies are in the early stages. Some of them are older than most truckers on the road today. But they all offer one thing in common: a domestic source of energy that could eventually replace part – or all – of the millions of gallons of crude oil pumped daily into this country from foreign sources.
Truckers often empty their garbage when they fuel up at the local truck stop. If Brian Appel gets his way, that trash could turn into a treasure.
Appel is the chairman and CEO of Changing World Technologies, a New York firm that is turning garbage – be it tires, old beach balls, junked computers, leftovers from the dinner table or even human and animal wastes – into oil.
That’s oil, as in black gold, Texas tea – oil that can be made into fuel oil, gas or diesel.
According to a statement from the company, the process mimics the way heat and pressure inside the Earth convert organic materials into oil. The material is chopped up, and then heated and pressurized to produce hydrocarbons.
The company has a research and development plant at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and has set up a partnership with ConAgra foods to reprocess waste from its turkey operations at a plant in Carthage, MO.
According to Julie Gross Gelfand, a spokeswoman for Changing World, the plant in Carthage has started producing and selling oil commercially. Initially, the company’s output – which at the Carthage plant could reach roughly 500 barrels a day – is being sold to a local utility that is using it to produce electricity. However, the company hopes to do more.
“There’s talk about a lot of things,” Gelfand said. “It’s hard to be very specific … but we’re just several months since we produced our first drop commercially. There’s lots of potential applications for it.
“Obviously, in the big picture sense, the ability to create an independent domestic source of energy is key, but it’s going to be some time before we’re there.”
The company has lined up some impressive names among its supporters and proponents, including Howard Buffett of ConAgra, son of investment giant Warren Buffett, and James Woolsey, former director of the CIA. Buffett sits on the board of the joint venture with ConAgra, and Woolsey is on the board of Changing World itself.
Changing World says it can produce oil at $15 a barrel – considerably lower than the current price of crude. The company says that in a few years, its cost will drop to $10, and later could drop to as low as $6 per barrel.
Whether the technology is as promising as it sounds – and truckers will be filling their tanks with what used to fill their trash cans – depends on who you ask.
“If the technology is successful, it could offer enormous opportunities to address farm waste problems in the Midwest,” William Rice, acting regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement. “It could be applied to all sorts of other wastes. This looks extremely positive.”
But, Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst at Fahnestock & Co. and a former engineer, told Reuters news service, “It might work in the lab, but when you put it on a larger scale it becomes a daunting task. It is uneconomic and it’s not feasible. This is a garbage disposal business; it has nothing to do with energy.”
While the pundits argue, Changing World is moving ahead with its business plan. The company doesn’t have any additional plants on the drawing board yet, but is scouting locations in Colorado as well as Europe.
Changing World has garnered some media attention. But during the past year, it’s an entirely different kind of alternative fuel that has garnered attention from pundits, presidential contenders and just plain folks.
The buzz on biodiesel
The fuel that seems to be on everyone’s lips is biodiesel, and now that the price of traditional diesel has exploded to new heights, it’s getting some serious consideration.
The alternative fuel was mentioned by both George W. Bush and John Kerry during the presidential debates. It has spurred scientists, entrepreneurs and others to pour thousands into researching it.
Plenty of people say they’re making biodiesel, and plenty have different definitions of what it is. But here’s the straight stuff, right from the National Biodiesel Board, a manufacturers’ association:
Biodiesel is not straight vegetable oil. It is made when oils or fats, usually waste from a restaurant or other source, are passed through a process called transesterification, which creates two chemicals: diesel fuel and glycerin, which is used to make soap.
The fuel must meet an industry specification, ASTM D6751, and must be “biodegradable, nontoxic and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics,” the Biodiesel Board said. Biodiesel can be used alone to fuel a diesel engine, or it can be blended with traditional diesel fuels.
Several companies across the country have started pilot projects to produce biodiesel, and it’s already available in some places.
For example, Griffin Industries, a Cold Spring, KY, company that recycles billions of pounds of food, grocery, restaurant and agricultural waste, produces biodiesel from soybean oil, recycled restaurant grease and other sources.
Another company, Pacific Biodiesel, has a plant at the Central Maui Landfill in Hawaii. The plant is diverting roughly 140 tons of oil and grease a month out of the landfill and using it to produce fuel. The company now has plants in Nagano, Japan, and Honolulu. And for those concerned that the fuel isn’t practical for diesel vehicles, one of the company’s owners is Robert King, owner of King Diesel.
But can you buy the stuff for your truck? The answer is yes, if you’re in the right place. Not many stations carry biodiesel or blends yet, but more plants and more fueling locations are popping up all the time.
For instance, Lykins Oil Co. now offers a 2 percent biodiesel 98 percent diesel blend at six fueling stations in the Cincinnati area, Jeff Lykins, president of Milford, OH-based Lykins, told Land Line.
The stations – a Marathon, an Exxon, a Shell and three BPs – primarily serve passenger vehicles, but handle some truck traffic. Lykins said he thought biodiesel would appear soon in truck stops “if it is well accepted” in the markets where it is now offered.
Lykins started offering the blend during the last week of October. Although the biodiesel is more expensive than regular fuel now, the company is offering the blend at the same price, and Lykins said that as more companies started producing the fuel, the price would likely come down.
But for now, it is not a big part of the company’s bottom line, with Lykins producing about 100,000 gallons a year, mostly for commercial and farm operations.
“So far, it’s been very well accepted” by the public, Lykins said.
Despite the promise of fuels like biodiesel and Changing World’s turkey-turned-truck-fuel, it’s a very old technology that could play the key role in helping the United States overcome its very recent energy crunch.
There’s gold in them thar’ hills
Back in the glory days of Pennsylvania’s coal mining industry – dating back nearly a century – plants would extract the best anthracite coal from raw ore, and then deposit the rest into the piles, which are a combination of anthracite, other lower-grade coals and rock.
The material in the piles – commonly referred to as “culm” – has the starring role in an idea being touted by a company in Pennsylvania, WMPI, and its president, John Rich Jr.
The company is working to build a plant that would convert the piles of “waste” coal into a low-sulfur, high-cetane form of diesel.
And lest you think this is another pie in the sky scheme, or worry that the government will shut it down, Rich is quick to point out that the technology he’s using fueled South Africa for years, and that Gilberton, PA-based WMPI has received a $100 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to underwrite some of the capital costs of the plant and deploy the technology.
If that’s not enough to convince you, talk to Harold Schobert, director of The Energy Institute at Penn State University. He regards Rich’s plan as “totally feasible.”
“Aside from the fact that he’s using a slightly different fuel to run the plant than has been used in years past, what he’s doing is well-proven commercial technology,” Schobert said.
“There’s a lot of waste material on the surface here from yesteryear,” Rich said. “The intent here is to take this waste coal concentrate, take the carbon out, and gasify that waste coal or carbon in the entrained flow gasifier, and produce a synthesis gas, which is a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.”
That synthesis gas would then be passed through a process that would liquefy it using a process developed in South Africa. During the apartheid era, many oil-producing countries would not do business with that nation, and it depended on gasified coal for much of its diesel fuel needs.
The final product of the process is a highly refined fuel that will run in existing diesel engines.
Rich said his company hopes to blend its product into the existing diesel fuel network, probably through one or more of the major oil companies, including Shell, which has provided technology to his operation.
Rich said the technology behind the proposed plant “goes to the ’20s.”
“It was developed in Germany, where they gasified coal in a different method for producing the gas.”
Two German scientists developed a process that then converted the gas into a liquid. Schobert says the process provided half the fuel used by the German army and civilian population in World War II. Even more impressive is how the process was used later in South Africa after the war. That nation used the process to fill 98 percent of its liquid fuel needs for about a half century.
“They’re the experts at this time,” Rich said of the South Africans. “They gasify at one of the facilities we visited over 40 million tons a year and produce from that 150,000 barrels a day of these type of clean products.”
Rich says his plant should be able to make about 11¼2 barrels out of every ton and a half of culm. And there’s plenty to work with.
“For every ton (of anthracite) that was marketed, there’s about a ton in these waste piles,” Rich said. “The estimates are about a billion tons of waste material in Pennsylvania alone.”
When the plant is operating – which Rich estimates will occur in about three and a half years – it should produce about 50 million gallons a year. At that rate, Rich says the waste piles could fuel the plant for more than 50 years.
The coal-based diesel has some advantages besides its low sulfur content. The wholesale cost of producing the finished diesel (not including the cost of distribution) will be between $1.20 and $1.25 a gallon, Rich said, compared with about $1.40 a gallon for traditional diesel – a figure likely to go up when new emissions regulations go into effect in 2007.
But the cost of the coal-based fuel is not likely to go up – Rich says if anything happens, it’s likely to go down. The main cost his company faces is the cost of building the plant. After that’s paid off, he estimates the cost will drop to 95 cents per gallon.
And unlike oil, the supply is primarily domestic, and not likely to run short anytime soon. Rich says that conservatively, the United States has 150 to 300 years of coal reserves. On its Web site, Rich’s company places the reserves much higher. Using figures from the U.S. Geological Survey, the firm estimates that current reserves could last 800 years or more.
Using part of that for fuel would cut down the reserves, but the technology Rich is using doesn’t even depend on that.
“Any kind of hydrocarbon feed stock is a candidate,” he said. That could be waste coal, vegetable oil, wood waste, virtually any material that would burn. “All those.”
There are a few disadvantages, Rich said – including reduced lubricity compared with old-style diesel. But additives can address that.
What took so long?
With all of the advantages, many wonder why we haven’t done this earlier. Rich says that’s because for years now, “oil was so dominant.”
“It’s only in the last couple of years that people throughout the world had all of the trouble associated with accessing and maintaining a continuity of supply,” he said.
“The military’s sitting there making sure we have continuity of supply.”
The economic prospects for Rich’s plant look good, Schobert said.
“He has two things going for him,” Schobert said.
“One is that the price of oil is going through the roof. The people we talk to do not anticipate that it will come down substantially. As the price of oil goes up, alternative liquid fuels become increasingly attractive.”
The second advantage is that Rich plans to “re-mine” coal waste and then reclaim the land, which Schobert said might open him up to receiving certain tax benefits.
“We are just emerging out of an era of relatively cheap petroleum,” Schobert said. “When petroleum is cheap, the interest in alternative technologies tends to go away.”
And with no end to higher oil prices yet in sight, that makes things look very good indeed for purveyors of alternative fuels.