Two Machines, One Concept: Making Waste Valuable

They may sound like something out of an episode of Star Trek or a Kurt Vonnegut novel (or maybe a Looney Toons cartoon), but two fairly recent—and very science fiction-y—inventions take waste from both the technosphere and the biosphere and turn it reusable, valuable products, including oil, chemicals, and even nutritional supplements.

Vortex Dehydration Systems's Windhexe machine, a.k.a. the "tornado in a can," whips up the worst twister you can imagine, but contains it within the machine's conical cylinder. In goes industrial and agricultural waste, out comes micron-sized, atomized particles in powder form... Products that are high in moisture, even molecularly bound, are processed and dried economically. That means stuff like concrete, glass, stone, aluminum cans, coal, vegetables, and meats can be instantly converted to powder and then reused. Presently, the systems are used primarily to process poultry, swine, cattle, and fish.

With no internal moving parts and using only air provide the destructive energy, almost any product can be turned into fine powder, as swirling air dehydrates the material using a combination of mechanical and evaporative energy. Mechanical separation devices are also used to recover oil. Another pending process even takes jellyfish and egg shells to create a dietary supplement that could help people suffering from problems like arthritis. (Former Celbrex and Vioxx users rejoice, though who knows what the warning essay in the advert for this stuff might sound like?)

Similarly, a Changing World Technologies whiz-bang device uses a thermal depolymerization process (TDP) 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. Waste goes in one end and comes out the other as three products, all valuable and environmentally benign: high-quality oil, clean-burning gas, and purified minerals that can be used as fuels, fertilizers, or specialty chemicals for manufacturing.

But unlike other solid-to-liquid-fuel processes such as cornstarch into ethanol, this one will accept almost any carbon-based feedstock. For example, if a 175-pound man fell into one end, he would come out the other end as 38 pounds of oil, 7 pounds of gas, and 7 pounds of minerals, as well as 123 pounds of sterilized water.

That sounds weird, but imagine this: If this thing works, most toxic waste problems would disappear—and so would imported oil. According to its manufacturers, if the U.S. were to convert its agricultural waste alone into oil and gas, according to Discover magazine, it would yield the energy equivalent of 4 billion barrels of oil annually. Four billion barrels! That's nearly as much as we import each year.

And yet this idea is not so much new, as it is simply sped up. The Earth already makes oil and gas from hydrocarbon-based waste, of course, it just takes a long time (like millions of years) for stuff to decompose and turn into petroleum, whereas TDP machines turbocharge the process by using and controlling heat and pressure to levels that break the feedstock's long molecular bonds. Hey, if Superman could turn coal into diamonds with his hands, why can't we turn turkey blood and guts into oil?

Why not indeed. In fact, like the Windhexe, the process can be tweaked to make other valuable specialty chemicals from waste like animal offal and PVC, without off-gassing dangerous byproducts—a huge improvement over burning PVC in a municipal-waste incinerator, which simply produces dioxin.

Surely the processes have not been perfected yet—and they certainly seem far out. But looking at waste as profit and not cost and as a potential source of raw material the first step in creating sustainable technospheres and biosphere. Hats off to tipsters Michael Mason and Brian Bennet Via ::Boing Boing ::Vortex Dehydration Systems ::Changing World Technologies [by MO]

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