You Tell Us: Cooking Up a New Fuel Source

PHOTOS: Left: Jean Marc Blache/Mission/Getty Images; Right: Global Resource Corporation

A US $5 million, city-bus-size microwave oven that Global Resource Corp. (GRC) is building for an auto recycler on Long Island, in New York, is slated to give the TV dinner treatment to 6 million tires this year. The machine will turn the tires and other hydrocarbon-based scraps, like the plastic and vinyl in a car, into fuel. The process is simple: As the tires melt down, their chemical bonds are broken and they release hydrocarbon gases, some of which can be condensed into diesel fuel. The rest can be burned like natural gas.

A single tire can yield nearly 4 liters of diesel, about 1.5 cubic meters of combustible gas and more than 3 kilograms of carbon coke, which can be used in pigmenting plastic or making new tires.

The company says that because microwaves are so efficient, in that they heat the ”food” and nothing else, the process will yield more than 10 times as much of the energy required to power the machine. With hundreds of millions of tires and other petroleum-based junk lying in landfills—not to mention the soon-to-be-discarded tires currently on the road—there is a significant feedstock in place.

GRC, located in West Berlin, N.J., is interested in more than just burning rubber. It has already filed patents for software-controlled microwave emitters using nearly 10 000 different frequencies, each one specific to a different type of material. (The 2.45-gigahertz frequency of the RF energy that pops your popcorn and makes your Hot Pockets hot targets the molecules in water, fats, and sugar.) The aim is to zap trash, turning landfills into oil fields. Besides generating fuel, microwaving garbage would solve an environmental problem. It would begin to empty overstuffed landfills by reducing the materials’ bulk by as much as 80 percent.

GRC’s microwave technology has drawn broad interest. The U.S. Department of Defense has tossed around the idea of using the emitters in combat zones like Iraq to recycle waste without burning or burying it. And oil companies are looking at the technology as an inexpensive method to extract the energy from oil shale and tar sands. The microwave maker is also responding to interest in using the emitters to pull the hydrocarbons out of coal without freeing the air-fouling particulate matter that is one of coal’s chief drawbacks.

But will this good idea just perpetuate our dependence on fossil fuel when we should be focusing our attention and research dollars on meeting energy demand with renewables? After all, there is one problem that GRC’s machines will not solve: When the diesel and gas they produce are burned, greenhouse gases are still released into the atmosphere.

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