Monday, April 17, 2006

Big 3 can turn junk vehicles into gas

Research group unveils green technology that converts some of landfill's trash into oil, fuel, carbon.

Parts of that old clunker, destined for the scrap heap, might end up back in a gas tank, under new technology unveiled by Detroit automakers this week in Detroit.
Every year 15 million vehicles are scrapped in the United States and nearly all are recycled. But a quarter of the content -- such as glass, rubber, tires and foam -- ends up in landfills to the tune of nearly 8 billion pounds a year.
However, there may be a cure for that weighty ailment. The U.S. Council for Automotive Research released a study this week in Detroit about a new technology -- "thermal conversion process" -- that can turn some of the landfill's sludge into oil, fuel, gas and carbon.
The company that performed the study, Changing World Technologies Inc., used a plant in Carthage, Mo., where it has learned how to turn turkey bones and other scrapped animal parts into biofuels. If it works for turkey guts, the company argues, why not foam seats and other automotive leftovers.
"If it saves landfill space, if it makes oil and if it can be done in an environmentally friendly way, then it's certainly something worth doing," said General Motors Corp. research scientist Candace S. Wheeler, the principal author of a paper unveiled at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress.
About 64 percent of the material was converted to oil, Wheeler said. If done across the fleet of scrapped vehicles, it could eventually create billions of gallons of oil, she said.
USCAR is an umbrella research group formed by DaimlerChrysler AG., Ford Motor Co. and GM, along with public and private partners. Group members will vote today at its Southfield headquarters on whether to approve another more intensive study.
Motivating automakers in part are new regulations in Europe mandating additional recycling of materials from junked cars.
Beginning last Jan. 1, under a new "end-of-life vehicles" directive, new cars must be 85 percent recyclable -- and 5 percent of that can be from recovered energy.
The recycling threshold jumps to 95 percent in 2012, which is requiring automakers to redesign some parts. Some European countries are offering subsides to build plants to change recycled materials into oil.
Turning some scrap automotive parts into oil poses challenges and concerns because the material has some PCBs and heavy metals. Carbon dioxide is also emitted while creating the oil. Essentially, the test involved turning 3,000 pounds of material into a soupy mix, which was heated to nearly 600 degrees, and then skimming the oil from the water.
The auto recycling business is now the nation's 11th largest industry with sales of $5 billion annually. More than 14 million tons of automotive steel are recycled every year. There are more than 7,000 auto recyclers in the United States, employing about 50,000 people.
But recyclers object to some of the rules automakers have suggested. Currently, automakers recommend that air bags be deployed before a car is scrapped. They argue used airbags shouldn't be resold.
But the Automotive Recyclers Association's Charles Ossenkop -- in a paper delivered this week in Detroit -- says that's a waste.
"Air bags have significant resale value and ARA believes that testing results validate the reliability of previously installed non-deployed air bags," Ossenkop wrote.
Air bags are becoming increasingly difficult to remove by recyclers -- in a bid to stop theft.
Individual states have passed various laws governing what can and cannot be placed in landfills from scrapped cars. Some don't allow tires to be placed in landfills.
In 2005, Oregon passed a law that bans the sodium azide propellant material in airbags from being placed in landfills -- if the airbag hasn't been deployed. But not all airbags have the material. "Information on which vehicles have sodium azide air bags would be helpful," Ossenkop wrote.


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