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US Research: Human Waste May Become Future of Oil

Sludge was previously considered unusable for biofuel conversion because it was too wet.Sludge was previously considered unusable for biofuel conversion because it was too wet.

Turning sewage sludge into fuel has long been a science fiction fantasy of a waste-free world. But researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed technology to turn 128 million cubic meters of sewage a day in the US into biocrude oil.

The technology, called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), uses pressure and heat to mimic how the Earth creates crude oil, a process that takes millions of years. But HTL takes mere minutes, Market Watch reported.

“The best thing about this process is how simple it is,” Corinne Drennan, who works on bioenergy technologies at PNNL, said in the press release. “The reactor is literally a hot, pressurized tube.”

HTL breaks down organic matter, like human waste, into simpler compounds. That material gets pressurized at 1,360 kilograms per square inch (one hundredth times of a car tire) and the reactor heats the sludge at roughly 350 660 degrees Celsius.

Drennan also explained that the sludge has fats which “appear to facilitate the conversion of other materials … such as toilet paper, and keep the sludge moving through the reactor.”

The end result is basically fossil petroleum, which can be refined to make fuel, like gasoline and diesel. One person alone could generate enough waste to produce up to three gallons a year.

In the past, sludge was considered unusable for biofuel conversion because it was too wet. But HTL’s research eliminated the need for drying — an energy intensive and expensive process. Genifuel Corporation, a Utah-based company that makes renewable fuel equipment, has licensed the technology and is currently working with Metro Vancouver to build a demo plant. They hope the approximately $9 million plant could start construction as early as 2018. If the demo is successful, the technology has the potential to pump out 30 million barrels of oil a year.

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