It sounds like a Hollywood science-fiction movie: a little-known and rather odd-ball inventor designs a machine that, amazingly, turns common garbage into engine fuel. But this story is no fiction. An American inventor in the mid-Atlantic state of West Virginia has designed and built just such a machine, which he and his supporters claim can convert a wide range of materials, from medical waste to old tires, into a useful fuel. Erika Celeste introduces us to Jack Hansen, whose invention just might help America reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, provide cheap local power for communities around the globe, and shrink the towering piles of garbage now choking America's landfills.
In the popular 1985 movie Back to the Future, a brilliant but eccentric scientist invents a way to fuel his time-traveling car with garbage. At the time, audiences laughed at the concept, but they didn't know that inventor Jack Hansen was already busy trying to turn that concept into reality. Within five years of the film's release, Mr. Hansen had created a machine that recycles old tires into oil.
"We're looking at a situation of 'back to the future' now. We can take and make fuel for your car from waste," Mr. Hansen said.
The Hansen Environmental Recycling System, or HERS, for short, is easy to operate. Waste is ground up into small pieces and then cooked in an electrically-heated processing chamber. While Mr. Hansen usually works with used tires, he can convert any carbon-based product, from medical waste to restaurant leftovers.
"The easiest way to explain it probably is just melting the tires down," he said. "It would be very much like a candle and if you melt a candle what's left behind is the wick. In our case what's left behind is the carbon black."
The crispy carbon black can be re-used to make a wide variety of industrial products, from new tires and steel to ink toner and paint. But the HERS processor also extracts an oil which can serve as a feedstock for factories, as a home-heating fuel, or, with some additional refining, as gasoline for cars. And the processor also produces two gases, methane and hydrogen, which can be sold to power companies for use in fuel cells.
While the inventor concedes that the basic principle behind his new machine has been around for years, he said it is the invention's construction that makes it unique. "What I did with my processor is, I took out everything in all the other systems that I saw around the world that were breaking. I took out the motors, I took out the conveyor belts, the augers. What I had left was a bucket with a heater in it," said Mr. Hansen. "And no one else had done this before. So my processor is the only processor on the planet right now that has no moving parts."
His design is also the only one with the heater on the inside of the processor. That means it's more energy efficient, has fewer emissions or odors, and when the processor is running, it's not hot to the touch. He adds that the recycling system can be built with one or more chambers, each a little more than a cubic meter in size, to accommodate as little or as much garbage as the user needs to dispose of.
A machine that can do so much with so little sounds too good to be true. So scientists at Marshall University, a respected West Virginia institution, conducted a study of it. Environmental specialist George Carico headed the project. He said he was impressed. "Simple things tend to work," he said. "A couple of other things I like with this technology over conventional tire-burning methods is you've got a much more efficient use of your heating process. So it has a more 'environmentally favorable' flavor to it." With the university's endorsement of his invention, the inventor patented the HERS Processor and several design variations in December, 2000. Mr. Hansen is hopeful that his invention will speed the elimination of the billion-plus used tires now piling up in America's waste landfills, unsightly trash that poses a danger of both fire and disease. Mr. Hansen says getting rid of those tire piles would cut down on the mosquito populations that breed within them, and help reduce outbreaks of the West Nile Virus. "We clean the environment, we extract energy, we have to import less energy - I can't think of a drawback," he said.
George Carico thinks that might be an overstatement. He's not sure operational expenses can be kept low enough with the Hansen machine to make the process economically profitable.
"You've got costs for the mechanical separation of the steel (tire) belts from the rest of the rubber, the work involved with getting it, all the prepatory work to get it ground up to the right size to use in the processor. All these things involved add to the cost of processing," he said. Despite the costs, a Michigan firm that raises capital for small businesses has decided to invest in Mr. Hansen's processor. Owner Roger Clark said he'd like to build a test processor plant. If everything works, he hopes to put up 150 more around the country.
"We're allocating $25 million towards this project. We've raised most of it; we're still in the process of looking for some investors for some additional months. We hope to start the project shortly after first of the year," Mr. Clarke said.
Because environmental laws in many countries are becoming stricter, international companies in need of efficient, affordable waste disposal are rushing to identify and support new technologies. Mr. Hansen said companies in China, Taiwan, and Australia are presently negotiating with him to obtain licensing rights to the processor. And a British company appears to be interested in using the hydrogen by-product of the processor in their fuel cells. All of which leaves Mr. Hansen with some very big dreams.
"I want to see this thing in every place on the planet that's got more than 50,000 people!" Mr. Hansen said.