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February 2007

Modern alchemy

In the ancient world, one popular goal of alchemy was to turn lead into gold. The idea of turning something worthless into something valuable is appealing. Recycling does just that – it turns valueless materials into something that can be used again.

But what about the waste from scrap processing? What about the stuff that even scrap processors find useless? What about fluff?

At its best, shredder fluff might have been used as cover material at landfills. Now, it’s more likely to be classified as potentially hazardous and sent to expensive landfills willing to deal with hazardous wastes.

The folks at Antek Research, Inc. have another idea. They plan on turning shredder fluff into diesel fuel.

The first plant is planned for Mobile, Alabama, at David’s Auto Shredder, where approximately 75 tons per day of shredder fluff will go in and 2,000 liters (about 528 gallons) per hour of diesel fuel will come out per unit installed. That equates to about 5 million gallons of diesel fuel each year per unit. It’s estimated that the system will pay for itself in about 4 years.

“The entire plant is self-sufficient because we don’t use any power off the grid,” said John Shoemaker, president of Antek. The processing plant runs on diesel power, using about 10 percent of what is produced for its own power.

Then comes the chemical magic, the catalytic depolymerization process. Dr. Richard D. Craven, vice president of chemical research, explained, “The process takes waste materials and it takes the long chain molecules and chops them into a size that falls into the diesel fuel range.” In essence, it’s “reversing the process that’s used to make the plastics and other materials.”

Craven explained that there are other processes that can convert waste to diesel but they can’t effectively handle the same variety of waste materials. For these other processes, certain materials result in the production of “environmentally unfriendly” gases that must be dealt with.

“[Our] process eliminates that,” he said. Instead of releasing the harmful gases, the materials turn into inert salts like sodium and potassium chlorides or other more easily dealt with solids. “The process itself has no emissions,” he added.

The conversion comes through a combination of heat, mild pressure and chemistry. “It mimics what nature does,” Craven said. “All of nature is essentially a cycle. This completes a cycle.” But instead of waiting millions of years, the end result is much more quickly achieved.

“We are getting to a point where we’re running out of usable energy sources,” Craven said. “And our waste streams contain a lot of energy.” He said that waste disposal is inefficient use of this energy.

As far as the quality of the fuel, “Our diesel will meet ASTM standards,” Craven said, “but we’re trying to improve it beyond that.” They also hope to improve the entire process so that trace elements in the fluff are also recovered completely.

“Our primary goal now is to concentrate on the scrap metal and construction and demolition industries,” Craven said, although the same process could be used for municipal waste streams in the future. The chemical process works just as well for “bio-products” as it does for petroleum based materials. An added bonus is that it costs less to make fuel from fluff than to make biodiesel from soybeans or other agricultural products.

While Antek Research is a nonprofit, research and consulting company, Antek Energy will be a for-profit company. “I’ve always been an environmentalist,” Craven said. Profits from Antek Energy will help fund Antek Research.

Craven said, “It will be a turnkey situation – we will run the plants,” so the scrap dealers won’t need to have any worries about the technology and processing. Each plant will require three to four people per unit and those with larger production will add more units. Antek Energy will hire and train people to work the plants which, because of the thermal requirements, will run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Craven said that a lot of energy was put into items that are now buried in landfills. While Antek’s application of this process could change the future of landfills, what about the ones we’ve already filled? He said, “I’ve already predicted that society will go back and someday mine the landfills for the resources there.”

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