HAMPSHIRE - Can the other white meat's manure make black gold? They say you can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, but University of Illinois researchers are working some interesting magic at the other end of the animal.
"We are the first to actually do this," professor Yuanhui Zhang says proudly of his team's ability to turn swine manure into crude oil.
He's a bio-environmental engineer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has led the 10-year research project that recently announced a breakthrough in porcine petroleum.
That neat trick may sound crude.
But it also sounds good to a pork industry swamped with oceans of swine manure, and it sounds like the national anthem to those looking to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.
A typical pig produces about 6 gallons of waste a day. For a hog farmer like Pat Dumoulin of Hampshire, who has about 1,200 sows, that's enough stinky and potentially hazardous fumes that he has a pair of 500,000-gallon tanks to properly store the stuff.
Like most farmers, much of the manure from Dumoulin's hogs winds up as fertilizer.
"Most of the farmers in our area are open to taking the hog manure," says Dumoulin, whose farm has been in his family for more than 50 years. "Sometimes it's done for no cost, sometimes they pay us a fee to spread it on their fields."
Either way, scientists have agreed for years that the chemical and capital potential of pig manure, like almost all organic waste, could have other uses.
Zhang's breakthrough wasn't that he and fellow researchers had become excrement alchemists; in about 1998, he figured out how to convert some of a pig's byproduct to an energy source.
Turning garbage into natural gas, cow manure into fuel for power plants, and even fast-food grease into auto fuel are other examples of recent advances in the sub-field of icky-but-renewable energy.
Zhang's big breakthrough is that he's designed a more efficient process: a continuous reactor.
Instead of converting hog waste one batch at a time, Zhang's lab, which is funded in part by the Illinois Pork Producers Association, has developed a method to feed waste continuously into a reactor, which is essentially an industrial-strength pressurized oven.
And, Zhang boasts, "We don't even need pre-drying."
Chemically, pig dung isn't as different from oil as one might think. In Zhang's reactor, a process known as thermochemical conversion partially breaks down hydrocarbon molecules that make up most of the excrement, and voila: porky petrol.
Similar but not identical to the black gold it took Mother Nature eons to brew, Zhang's fuel behaves like diesel.
Now the plan is to move from the lab to a full-sized pilot reactor on a farm somewhere downstate. Zhang predicts the process could get 3.6 gallons of crude oil a day out of each pig.
Illinois brings some 7.2 million hogs to market each year and the nationwide industry is about 100-million hogs strong.
Theoretically, the resulting millions of barrels of crude a day could make a significant dent in America's dependence on nonrenewable, and often imported, oil.
But converting the nations automobile fleet to hog-oline isn't what Zhang or the hog industry is thinking about right now. No research has been done into how many current commercial vehicles could run on the fuel.