Converting Manure to Oil: U of I Lays Groundwork for One-of-a-Kind Pilot Plant

URBANA - Research at the University of Illinois is one step closer to opening up a billion-dollar market to the hog industry and reducing U.S. dependence on crude oil imports. U of I scientists have teamed with industry partners to design a pilot plant for a large commercial livestock farm that will convert swine manure to crude oil.
calendar icon 3 March 2006
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The pilot plant is based on research led by Yuanhui Zhang, an agricultural and biological engineer at the U of I. Zhang and colleagues developed a system using thermochemical conversion (TCC) to transform organic compounds (like swine manure) in a heated and pressurized enclosure to produce oil and gas.

"The process we developed is different from most conventional TCC processes," said Zhang. "There is no need for the addition of a catalyst, and our process does not require pre-drying of the manure."

The initial stage of Zhang's research led to the development of a batch TCC reactor. "With a batch reactor, you 'cook' one batch, empty it, then cook another batch, empty it," said Zhang. "Now we have a continuous reactor, which means continuous pumping of feed stock and continuous output. The development of a continuous reactor brings the technology one step closer to a TCC pilot plant."

Zhang's team has achieved as high as 70-percent conversion from swine manure volatile solids to oil. At that conversion efficiency, the manure excreted by one pig during the production cycle could produce up to 21 gallons of crude oil and add a $10 per pig profit. In the 100-million-hogs-per-year U.S. industry alone, that adds up to a billion dollars. The Illinois Pork Producers Association has helped fund the project, and its executive director, Jim Kaitschuk, said, "We're very supportive of this research. We see a number of advantages to producing crude oil from swine manure, which includes adding value to manure products."

Now, steps are being taken to build a pilot plant that will help determine if the TCC process can live up to those numbers. Worldwide BioEnergy (WWBE) is leading this effort in close cooperation with the U of I research team. Les Christianson, an agricultural and biological engineer at U of I and the industry liaison for Zhang's team, is optimistic about the potential for the manure-to-oil process.

"We believe that this can be economically feasible on a commercial scale," he said. "The first plant won't be the final design, but it will help us figure out what the right design is. Every technology goes through a learning curve, where you improve quality and reduce costs." According to Christianson, "U of I has given an exclusive, primary license to WWBE to commercialize the technology. We want to maintain research preeminence that will help make it successful. Worldwide BioEnergy will lead the effort to produce it."

In the meantime, Zhang?s team has expanded his research to determine if other types of livestock manure, and even human waste, can be used as feed stock for the TCC process. Innoventor Engineering Inc. and BioCrude have been sublicensed by WWBE to construct and operate the first commercial-sized systems for swine waste and human waste.

"Billions of dollars are spent on waste transportation and treatment, and regulations continue to become more stringent and cost-intensive to satisfy our desire for a clean environment," said Zhang. "Meanwhile, we have a growing need for bio-fuels that would reduce our dependence on foreign oil and the world's finite supply of crude petroleum. "It is vitally important that we develop innovative solutions that can address both those problems," he concluded.

Source: ACES News - 3rd March 2006

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