Microwaving Garbage into Gas

With so many people jumping on the "green technology" bandwagon these days, it can be extremely difficult to separate the snake oil salesmen from the people developing real technology. So when I first heard about Frank Pringle extracting fuel from old tires using microwaves, I was pretty sure he was just another huckster. Then I read the coverage; Popular Science Best of 2007 Innovators, Best Inventions of the Year , and I thought, "Maybe this guy is for real." Of course there are a lot of technologies that are "real" that can never really be used commercially. This is where Frank and his company Global Resources Corporation go from being a cool idea to perhaps the most important company in the world. First, let me give you a little background.

In a nutshell, Frank Pringle has figured out a way to extract fuel from virtually any item made from hydrocarbons by using microwaves. Since almost everything we use is made of plastic and therefore hydrocarbon based, Frank can essentially turn garbage into gas. If you want to read the technical details you can check them out here, but let’s just say everything from shale and sludge to old tires can now be cost effectively converted into useable oil. Okay, sounds great but we’ve heard the pipe dreams before. When will we really see this happen?

Here’s where the Buzz comes in. Frank is close to signing a deal to deliver eight working units to a customer in Los Angeles who will use them to convert heavy sludge residue from oil tankers into useable fuel. Each unit can process up to 10 tons of sludge per hour, meaning the eight units can produce the equivalent of 272,000 barrels of oil per month from the residue stuck in super tanker hulls. Up until now, this sludge was processed as hazardous waste but GRC’s units will now be turning waste into fuel.

Even more potentially buzzworthy, Frank’s microwave technology can be used to extract oil stuck in dormant oil wells. Again, I realize this sounds too good to be true so let me explain how and why. It is widely known that, using current methods, less than 50% of the oil in a well can be cost effectively extracted. The average number is closer to 35%. This means that all of the "dry" oil wells really aren’t dry at all. We just haven’t had the right technology to lift the heavy oil to the surface. In simple terms, GRC can heat the oil using microwaves, which then makes it easier to extract from the ground. If Frank’s technology only succeeds in extracting half of the remaining oil stuck in the ground, it will have effectively doubled the amount of oil available for global consumption. Once again, this sounds great, but when will we actually see this? According to Frank, Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, is looking to GRC to re-tap Pennsylvania’s hundreds of capped oil wells with a program expected to start this year. If this doesn’t qualify as a big deal, I’m not sure if anything does.

For the sake of our economy – and my gas bill – I sincerely hope Frank is legitimate and can deliver on the promises, because turning garbage into gas and doubling the world’s oil supply is definitely buzzworthy.

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1 Comments

  • Jay Tatum

    I'm just curious what becomes of the waste produced from such an innovative idea, the large-scale application of microwave technology on the local environment, and what measures are in place to protect the public safety from unrestricted use of microwave technology. Yes, I'm a killjoy on this issue, I guess, but I remember when we poured toxins into the water store and told folks it was "acceptable" for drinking. I mean, can a person get "microwave lung" or "brain mets" from such exposure? Ethics is one of those things I rarely seen engaged in the innovative use of technology.
    In some ways this is like a replay of that scene from Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum's character confront's John Hammond and says, "Yes, you took the logical next step and in your haste to launch this new technology before anyone else did, you never asked whether you should," or some rendition of this line of thinking.
    Yes, it sounds exciting. Does anyone know what the use of microwave technology in this application will do to the environment and those who inhabiit it? The social responsibility for harnessing such technology carries with it as heavy a price tag as the rest of technology. I'm just asking. Sounds like the makings of the next great sci-fi book and movie. . .