Intermediate Term Solutions

07th August 2007

Last week I chatted up what I think should be the central goal, issues, & costs for desalination research.

This week I’d like to discuss some peripheral water purification techniques that I’ve seen crop up in the last year.

The most important secondary project imho is Thermal depolymerization. According to Wickipedia:

Thermal depolymerization (TDP) is a process for the reduction of complex organic materials (usually waste products of various sorts, often known as biomass and plastic) into light crude oil. It mimics the natural geological processes thought to be involved in the production of fossil fuels. Under pressure and heat, long chain polymers of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon decompose into short-chain petroleum hydrocarbons with a maximum length of around 18 carbons.

The process can convert a city’s sewage into diesel fuel for a profit. The waste is water. The process destroys prions. Again according to Wicki…

The process can break down organic poisons, due to breaking chemical bonds and destroying the molecular shape needed for the poison’s activity. It is highly effective at killing pathogens, including prions. It can also safely remove heavy metals from the samples by converting them from their ionized or organometallic forms to their stable oxides which can be safely separated from the other products.

TDP is especially popular in Europe as a means disposing of slaughter house carcasses in a way that kills any chance of mad cow disease spreading.

So the process can convert municipal sewage to oil profitably. (Wiki gives more background here. Last fall I blogged about the matter here.) The byproduct is water. There is a working plant in Missouri and a test plant in Philadelphia. What’s not to like? While the process looks to be profitable at current oil prices–its profitable only in 5 states where tax breaks are given. (And those tax breaks come on top of recent federal tax breaks.) Also, the water is not quite fresh. The process is not quite ready for prime time. But I don’t think the problem is very difficult to overcome. Surely nothing that a little R&D money & a couple bright guys from various industrial backgrounds wouldn’t be able to knock off in a year. Both the DOE and the EPA have kicked in six million apiece to fund the work in years past. Likely similar sums would get the bugs out the current system.

The payoff for a reliable means to turn city sewage into diesel fuel and clean fresh water would be pretty significant.
A smaller niche play would be to use wind power or photo voltaic powered pumps to pull brackish water from places like west Texas. The water would go to specialized green houses that desalinate the water. These could be used to grow fruits and vegetables. If there happened to be brackish water beneath a coal plant — another appropriate way to desalinate the brackish water would be to pump it into a green house that was growing algae for biodiesel. Heck you could have desalination greenhouses growing algae for biodiesal all over the saline aquifers of west texas.

Finally, I think that there should be room made to investigate & move as appropriate– desalination/purification/collection technologies as they appear. For example, in just this last year I’ve seen a technique that pulls water from air— a nice idea for the fog bound parts of the west coast south of San Francisco. As well, within the last year I’ve seen low pressure desalination move from theory to product.

Anyhow, that’s about all I want to do for now.

In the next week or two I’ll talk about pipelines.

No Comments

  1. Charles, let us know over at the EB, and at Kudlows when you blog about pipelines. BTW, as oil settles in around $75,00 – $100.00 the stuff is just going to come FLYING over the transom. Anyhoo, Thanks for the heads-up at EB.

    Comment by Rufus — August 13, 2007 @ 4:33 am

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