Sunday, June 3, 2007

27. Lubricants


Mark said...


pressured rocks into methane hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbon Heresy
Rocks into Gas

Geologists have long believed that the world's supply of oil and natural gas came from the decay of primordial plant and animal matter, which, over the course of millions of years, turned into petroleum.

Two diamond anvils, each about 3 millimeters high, in a diamond anvil cell. They compress a small metal plate that holds the sample.
The device can generate pressures greater than those in the center of the earth (3.6 million atmospheres) The methane generation experiments use pressures in the 50-100,000 atmosphere range, corresponding to the earth's upper mantle.
--Photograph courtesy of Dudley Herschbach

But new research coauthored by Dudley Herschbach, Baird research professor of science and recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, questions that thinking.

Published last fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study describes how investigators combined three abiotic (non-living) materials -- water (H2O), limestone (CaCO3), and iron oxide (FeO) -- and crushed the mixture together with the same intense pressure found deep below the earth's surface.

This process created methane (CH4), the major component of natural gas.

Herschbach says this offers evidence, although as yet far from proof, for a maverick theory that much of the world's supply of so-called fossil fuels may not derive from the decay of dinosaur-era organisms after all.

Herschbach became interested in the origins of petroleum hydrocarbons while reading A Well-Ordered Thing, a book about the nineteenth-century Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who developed the periodic table.

Written by Michael Gordin '96, Ph.D. '01, a current Junior Fellow, the book mentions a theory long held by Russian and Ukrainian geologists: that petroleum comes from reactions of water with other abiotic materials, and then bubbles up toward the earth's surface. Intrigued, Herschbach read further, including The Deep, Hot Bio-sphere by the late Cornell astrophysicist Thomas Gold.

An iconoclast, Gold saw merit in the Russian and Ukrainian view that petroleum has nonliving origins.

He theorized that organic materials found in oil -- which most scientists took as a sign that petroleum comes from living things -- may simply be waste matter from microbial organisms that feed on the hydrocarbons generated deep in the earth as these flow upward.

Another of Gold's assertions about methane and oil really caught Herschbach's attention.

"He said there wasn't much chance that you could do a laboratory experiment to test this," Herschbach reports. "And I thought, 'Holy smoke! We could do this with the diamond anvil cell.'"

Long interested in how molecules behave under high-pressure conditions, he contacted Russell Hemley, Ph.D. '83, a former student now at the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, to suggest the methane experiment. Together with Henry Scott of Indiana University and other researchers, Herschbach sought to create the same conditions found 140 miles below the earth's surface, where temperatures are scorching and pressures mount to more than 50,000 times those at sea level. "It's a great pressure cooker," he explains.

The diamond anvil cell, developed at the Carnegie Institution, can create the same pressures found as far as 4,000 miles beneath the earth's surface.

The cell employs two diamonds, each about three millimeters (roughly one-eighth-inch) high, which sit with their tips facing each other in hardened precision frames that are forced together, creating intense pressure in the small space between the tips. Diamonds are an ideal material for such experiments, Herschbach explains.

As one of the hardest substances on earth, they can withstand the tremendous force, and because they're transparent, scientists can use beams of light and X-rays to identify what's inside the cell without pulling the diamonds apart.

He notes that previous experiments by Russian scientists arrived at different conclusions because they used an old-fashioned press that had to be opened before any products inside could be analyzed, potentially changing the results.

"The experiment showed it's easy to make methane," Herschbach says.

The new findings may serve to corroborate other evidence, cited by Gold, that some of the earth's reservoirs of oil appear to refill as they're pumped out, suggesting that petroleum may be continually generated. This could have broad implications for petroleum production and consumption, and for our planet's ecology and economy.

But before we begin to think of petroleum as a renewable resource, Herschbach urges caution. "We don't know if a globally significant or commercially significant portion of methane might be formed abiotically from this pressure-cooker business," he says. "Even if we did convince ourselves that a lot of hydrocarbons are formed that way, we don't yet know how long it takes for it to percolate up and refill the reservoirs."

For Herschbach, these exciting research questions have "given me a second scientific childhood." He and his colleagues are eager to return to the lab and find out if even higher pressures will create more complex hydrocarbons, such as butane or propane. The research raises fundamental questions about how scientists determine if a material has living or nonliving origins. It also validates the work of previous scientists. "The fair conclusion," Herschbach says, "is that the views of Thomas Gold and Russian scientists all the way back to Mendeleev need to be taken more seriously than they have been in the Western world."

~Erin O'Donnell

Dudley Herschbach e-mail address:

Harvard magazine

Mark said...

[Title: Another "Green tech" of recycling waste materials into oil. There is another version of this above that utilizes high pressure cooking to do the same. This version is microwave based.

This is of course hardly optimal because it still relies on thermodynamics based pollution and burning afterwards. However, for a form of recycling of wastes it is useful. Oils can be utilized for more than fuel (which requires bad burning and pollution. They can be lubricants as well. So it's rather "green tech" though only on one side, and with still burning things it is hardly green on the other. It leads to something that is burned and creates pollution though is called green?

For lubricants though it is interesting and more sustainable a solution.

The other interesting point is that it is already commercial.

The other interesting point is that it homes in on particular frequencies of specific materials to do its job of recycling into oil. The microwaving based technologies are similar to the microwaving of steel (far cheaper for energy use to do that than to burn things in steel or metals production). However, with ideas mentioned by Benyus that mining could be conducted without the 'heat, beat, and treat' frameworks using microorganisms that extract metal ions from water (that would make extraction and manufacturing of metals possible without burning or mining), even the microwaving of steel may be superfluous. The other wavelength based tecchnologies are mentioned in electromedicine areas of the medical/drugs category. Look for more there as well.]

Green Tech

Frank Pringle has found a way to [REMEDIATE WASTES AND] squeeze oil and gas from just about anything

I'm not sure if I'm watching a magic trick, or an invention that will make the cigar-chomping 64-year-old next to me the richest man on the planet. Everything that goes into Frank Pringle's recycling machine—a piece of tire, a rock, a plastic cup—turns to oil and natural gas seconds later. "I've been told the oil companies might try to
assassinate me," Pringle says without sarcasm.

The machine is a microwave emitter that extracts the petroleum and gas hidden inside everyday objects—or at least anything made with hydrocarbons, which, it turns out, is most of what's around you. Every hour, the first commercial version will turn 10 tons of auto waste—tires, plastic, vinyl—into enough natural gas to produce 17
million BTUs of energy (it will use 956,000 of those BTUs to keep itself running).

Pringle created the machine about 10 years ago after he drove by a massive tire fire and thought about the energy being released. He went home and threw bits of a tire in a microwave emitter he'd been working with for another project. It turned to what looked like ash, but a few hours later, he returned and found a black puddle on the floor of the
unheated workshop. Somehow, he'd struck oil.

Or rather, he had extracted it. Petroleum is composed of strings of hydrocarbon molecules. When microwaves hit the tire, they crack the molecular chains and break it into its component parts: carbon black (an ash-like raw material) and hydrocarbon gases, which can be burned or condensed into liquid fuel. Pringle figured that some gases from his microwaved tire had lingered, and the cold air in the shop had
condensed them into diesel. If the process worked on tires, he thought, it should work on anything with hydrocarbons. The trick was in finding the optimum microwave frequency for each material—out of 10 million possibilities.

Pringle has spent 10 years and $1 million homing in on frequencies for hundreds of materials. In 2004 he teamed up with engineer pal Hawk Hogan to take the machine commercial.

Their first order is under construction in Rockford, Illinois. It's a 5.1-million microwave machine the size of small bus called the Hawk, bound for an auto-recycler in Long Island, New York. More deals loom:

The U.S. military may use Hawks in Iraq on waste such as water bottles and food containers. Oil companies are looking to the machines to gasify petroleum trapped in shale. [Talk about using an interesting technology for a bad unsustainable idea! We are without a requirement for mining for oil here, though the oil companies want to use the technology that puts them out of business for further extractions of the oil from the ground! Talk about hubris and brazenness.]

Back at the shop, Pringle is still zapping new materials. A sample labeled "bituminous coal" goes in and, 15 seconds later, Pringle ignites the resulting gas. "You see," he says, "why they might want to kill me."

Mark said...

[This is an overlap example of a technology or material idea that fits several categories simultaneously. Here, it is energy/lubricants. It is posted there at the 'energy' category as well. Overlap ideas are better for tying the commodity ecology together.]

This unfortunately cycles back into a bio-oil use, though I'll post it here anyway. It is either an energy use or lubricant.

What else are you gonna do with the 'gunk' he talks about?

An interesting use of current internal combustion engines running on complete waste is accomplished. However, I think for the energy category, there are other more etherially and ethically nice options.


"This is tremendous," Baskis said in the Kansas City Star. "From the tests we've run in our pilot, we know that if we took all the agricultural wastes (in America) and converted them into oil we could make 12 billion barrels per year."

With the U.S. using, on average, 19.4 million barrels a day, such a full-scale conversion could take a big chunk out of the need to import our oil.

[That's a huge understatement to put it mildly! It's actually creating 618 days worth of bio-oil at current use levels of petroleum annually; that would mean the U.S. would start to export its bio-oil because we would have almost twice as much automatically from what is required daily, which is provided from waste generated already. Bam!]

Though for the pragmatic point that simply burying all this biological stuff would go to waste (the toxic computer parts I think we could leave out of their mix!), this is an interesting cycle they are starting to create.


newswire article reposts oregon & cascadia 09.Jun.2003 07:00
energy & nuclear | environment | sustainability

Oil from Garbage?

A company claims its process can mimic the Earth's geothermal activity and turn any type of waste into oil, with no harmful pollutants

This was reposted from, a website that compiles coverage of environmental issues of concern in the Pacific Northwest.


Turkey guts, old tires, medical waste, obsolete computers [?! that would be highly toxic!], sewage, plastic bottles, cornstalks, household garbage, paper-pulp effluent, and livestock refuse.

What does all this stuff have in common? Stick any of it into one of Changing World Technologies' machines and -- through a process that the company claims is 85 percent energy efficient and produces zero harmful pollutants -- out comes oil.

"This is a solution to three of the biggest problems facing mankind," said Brian Appel, CEO of Changing World Technologies, to Discover Magazine. "This process can deal with the world's waste. It can supplement our dwindling supplies of oil. And it can slow down global warming."

Through what's known as a "thermal depolymerization process," or TDP for short, Changing World says it can turn just about anything -- even biological weapons waste such as anthrax spores -- into a golden-brown liquid that closely resembles crude oil, which can then be refined into heating oil, diesel fuel or gasoline. And the only byproduct of the entire process is water, which the company says can be discharged to a municipal sewer system in compliance with laws.

Imagine: no more Middle East oil, toxic waste, hog farm manure run-off, or massive piles of used tires. Instead, feed the detritus into one of a number of TDP plants scattered across the country and the results are three commodity-valued materials: oil, clean-burning gas, and purified minerals that can be used as fuels, fertilizers or manufacturing chemicals.

Sound too good to be true? Many doubters thought so, until the company's Philadelphia pilot plant started converting up to seven tons of various waste into oil, the first large-scale demonstration of the technology's potential. That success soon drew the interest of private investors, who have added $40 million to help move the process along. The federal government has also put $12 million into the venture.

"We will be able to make oil for $8 to $12 a barrel," said Paul Baskis, the inventor of Changing World's patented process, in Discover. "We are going to be able to switch to a carbohydrate economy."

The next phase of the company's test of the technology will be in Missouri, a football field away from one of ConAgra Foods' Butterball turkey processing plants, where Changing World is building a larger version of its Philadelphia test plant.

[see, this is just going to institutionalize all that nasty scale issue that has its own externalities in other areas though..., ideally of course the entire CATEGOERY HERE would disppear, similar to William McDonough's design ideas.]

Funded in part by a $5 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the two companies anticipate the $20 million facility will process more than 200 tons of turkey fats, bones, and feathers every day.

"This plant will make 10 tons of gas per day, which will go back into the system to make heat to power the system," said Changing World's Appel in Discover. "It will make 21,000 gallons of water, which will be clean enough to discharge into a municipal sewage system.

Pathological vectors will be completely gone.

It will make 11 tons of minerals and 600 barrels of oil, high-quality stuff, the same specs as a number two heating oil. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't even consider us waste handlers. We are actually manufacturers -- that's what our permit says. This process changes the whole industrial equation. Waste goes from a cost to a profit."

As Discover Magazine's story notes, the ConAgra facility represents a key opportunity for the livestock industry, which typically sends its waste to rendering plants that make animal feed and fertilizer from the waste -- essentially making food for animals from other animals.

But with the onset of mad cow disease and other livestock pathogens, the practice is coming under heightened scrutiny.

Europe has already completely banned the practice, and the United States may be close behind with its own increased restrictions, which could be a big boon for Changing World's TDP concept.

"This is tremendous," Baskis said in the Kansas City Star. "From the tests we've run in our pilot, we know that if we took all the agricultural wastes (in America) and converted them into oil we could make 12 billion barrels per year."

With the U.S. using, on average, 19.4 million barrels a day, such a full-scale conversion could take a big chunk out of the need to import our oil.


The thermal depolymerization process essentially mimics and speeds up what the earth already does over millions of years -- convert hydrocarbon-based waste into oil. Fossil fuels as we know them were produced when the long, complex molecular chains of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon found in long-dead animal and plant life was pressure-cooked by the earth's geothermal activity, yielding shorter-chain petroleum hydrocarbons. Changing World's TDP concept does the same thing, but faster. Plus, it claims it has improved on previous efforts by being able to handle wet waste, which is troublesome because producing enough energy to dry out the biological waste that's used often exceeds the energy value of the oil that's produced.

"The chief difference in our process is that we make water a friend rather than an enemy," said CEO Appel in Discover. "The other processes all tried to drive out water. We drive it in, inside this tank, with heat and pressure. We super-hydrate the material."

Robert Brown, an engineering professor at the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies at Iowa State University, told the Associated Press that he'd be surprised if Changing World Technologies could make their fuel at an affordable price, due to the wet waste problem.

Appel acknowledged his company's process isn't competitive with crude oil just yet, but envisions the price dropping as the TDP technology shows more promise. The ConAgra plant in Missouri will need to spend $15 a barrel turning turkey waste into oil, compared with about $13 a barrel for small exploration and production companies and $5 for a major oil company.

An interesting angle on the new technology, however, is its potential impact on the global warming front.

Detractors of the TDP idea argue that it only furthers our dependence on a hydrocarbon-based economy, rather than helping achieve a shift to a hydrogen economy that leaves carbon entirely out of the picture. But the company argues that with a major move toward adopting TDP technologies, oil that's already underground will be allowed to stay there. Keeping that oil below the earth's surface would help realign a balance in the global carbon cycle, which has been thrown out of whack by our extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

With TDP, all the "accouterments of the civilized world -- domestic animals and plants, buildings, artificial objects of all kinds -- would then be regarded as temporary carbon sinks," reports Discover. We wouldn't be overdrawing our carbon bank account, so to speak. Instead, "the only carbon used would that which already existed above the surface," which would help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that's already accumulated in the atmosphere.

But as with any other new technology, there'll be trade-offs and most likely unforeseen consequences that are tough to ferret out when initially flush with the potential promise of a world-altering idea.

For instance, in one point brought up in an online discussion on, if TDP is adopted widely, there'll no doubt be a drop in waste entering the environment. But if waste is no longer considered a "problem" thanks to TDP plants, it could possibly lead to an explosion of "throwaway" consumer items, producing an environmental strain on the production, not disposal, side of the equation.

Regardless of the potential impacts -- beneficial or otherwise -- Changing World's technology, if it proves successful, indeed has the potential to change the world. In conjunction with other advances in alternative energy technologies, the TDP concept will take its place among a new set of ideas that may someday help us get our power from somewhere besides underground.

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