Left: Frank Pringle [right] and Hawk Hogan [left] feed the Hawk recycler, which extracts oil and gas from waste like tires.
THE MICROWAVE MAGICIAN
Frank Pringle has found a way to squeeze oil and gas from just about anything
I’m not sure if I’m watching a magic trick, or an invention that will make the cigar-chomping 64-year-old next to me the richest man on the planet. Everything that goes into Frank Pringle’s recycling machine—a piece of tire, a rock, a plastic cup—turns to oil and natural gas seconds later. “I’ve been told the oil companies might try to assassinate me,” Pringle says without sarcasm.
The machine is a microwave emitter that extracts the petroleum and gas hidden inside everyday objects—or at least anything made with hydrocarbons, which, it turns out, is most of what’s around you. Every hour, the first commercial version will turn 10 tons of auto waste—tires, plastic, vinyl—into enough natural gas to produce 17 million BTUs of energy (it will use 956,000 of those BTUs to keep itself running).
Pringle created the machine about 10 years ago after he drove by a massive tire fire and thought about the energy being released. He went home and threw bits of a tire in a microwave emitter he’d been working with for another project. It turned to what looked like ash, but a few hours later, he returned and found a black puddle on the floor of the unheated workshop. Somehow, he’d struck oil.
Or rather, he had extracted it. Petroleum is composed of strings of hydrocarbon molecules. When microwaves hit the tire, they crack the molecular chains and break it into its component parts: carbon black (an ash-like raw material) and hydrocarbon gases, which can be burned or condensed into liquid fuel. Pringle figured that some gases from his microwaved tire had lingered, and the cold air in the shop had condensed them into diesel. If the process worked on tires, he thought, it should work on anything with hydrocarbons. The trick was in finding the optimum microwave frequency for each material—out of 10 million possibilities.
Pringle has spent 10 years and $1 million homing in on frequencies for hundreds of materials. In 2004 he teamed up with engineer pal Hawk Hogan to take the machine commercial.
Their first order is under construction in Rockford, Illinois. It’s a $5.1-million microwave machine the size of small bus called the Hawk, bound for an auto-recycler in Long Island, New York. More deals loom: The U.S. military may use Hawks in Iraq on waste such as water bottles and food containers. Oil companies are looking to the machines to gasify petroleum trapped in shale.
Back at the shop, Pringle is still zapping new materials. A sample labeled “bituminous coal” goes in and, 15 seconds later, Pringle ignites the resulting gas. “You see,” he says, “why they might want to kill me.” —RENA MARIE PACELLA