Washington Post: 'Tornado in a Can' Puts Hope in the Henhouse

A Mighty Wind Against Waste

'Tornado in a Can' Puts Hope in the Henhouse

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 9, 2002; Page A01

CLINTON, N.C. -- Inside the corrugated tin shed that serves as the top-secret test site for Vortex Dehydration Technology's strange new invention, Frank Polifka cranks open a valve and unleashes the force of a tornado.

Compressed air rushes into an eight-foot-tall steel cone and whirls counterclockwise at tremendous speeds, producing winds capable of turning rock into dust. It also emits a knee-buckling shriek that prompts Polifka to clap his hands over his ears and sends others staggering away.

Inventor and farmer Frank Polifka turns the valve on the flow of air for his creation, what he calls a tornado in a can, where winds of hundreds of miles an hour process waste material. (Photos Brian G. Thorpe For The Washington Post)

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There's a parade of visitors coming from all over the country to see this machine, to witness for themselves whether it really does what they've heard it can do. They want to know whether it really offers a new technology for mining precious metals, pulverizing trash, grinding concrete into a powder that can be reconstituted with water.

But the keenest interest so far is from poultry people who are watching closely to see whether it can revolutionize the way billions of pounds of chicken byproducts -- the feet, feathers, heads and entrails that don't end up in the supermarket -- are processed.

"The possibilities inspire the imagination," said Lewis Carr, a University of Maryland agricultural scientist who oversaw tests of an earlier prototype at the Salisbury campus on the Eastern Shore. "I expect to see this in the future. The question is how quickly it's going to get to the future."

Polifka calls his creation a "tornado in a can," though the official name painted on the side of the cone is Windhexe -- a branding inspired by the devil winds that sweep the Kansas plains that the 73-year-old Polifka has farmed all his life.

Whether there are vast riches to be made from pulverizing chicken poop or poultry parts into powder remains to be seen. The trick will be whether the machine can transform the various substances into products worth more than the processing costs.

Several of the poultry companies, apparently, were impressed enough to donate equipment and share information with the small start-up company Vortex Dehydration.

Though poultry officials are reluctant to speak publicly about the Windhexe for competitive reasons, they admit -- anonymously -- that the technology is intriguing.

"It kind of looks like something your uncle might invent in the back yard," said one poultry company executive. "But it really sparks the imagination what you could do with it."

Trying Out the Tornado

Some day, this machine could make a fortune for Polifka and his partners. But at the moment, the machine is broken, or at least that's what it sounds like.

Engineers shut it down and quickly huddle, mulling over a complex mathematical solution they think might help them fix the noise.

But Polifka, a stocky man with a snow-white beard and twinkling eyes, just opens the machine, grabs a broom handle and pokes at a flap of metal inside the cone. The adjustment made, he shuts the machine and starts it again. The noise is gone. In its place is the powerful hum of air, contained in the six-foot-diameter funnel Polifka modeled after the tornadoes he watched while growing up.

The tornado in a can is back up and ready for business.

Over the next several days, Polifka and his partners will test the mettle of the Windhexe on a variety of substances.

A ton of chicken backs. Four industrial-size drums containing 2,000 pounds of broken eggshells. A pallet of household garbage carefully culled from curbside trash cans in Lancaster, Pa.

And eight buckets of cannonball jellyfish caught in the Gulf of Mexico just a few days earlier by a scientist who believes the machine can spin them into the pharmaceutical equivalent of gold.

Polifka turns a wheel that controls the flow of air into the Windhexe and climbs up to where engineer Whit Davis prepares to feed the machine.

Davis scoops up a handful of the jellyfish goop and drops it in.

Gib DeBusk, the retired head of biology at Florida State, hovers anxiously nearby.

"It's nice stuff," DeBusk says of his jellyfish, which he mixed with several secret ingredients and then pureed.

If the tornado in a can can transform the glop properly, he believes it could be worth millions as an ingredient of wound-healing bandages, arthritis drugs, sports drinks and other products.

The machine cranks louder as the goo hits the vortex, and the mysterious process inside begins.

A Tinkerer's Challenge

In Polifka's world, it is often necessity, a finite bank account and a good old-fashioned challenge that breed innovation.

So when a grain buyer came to Polifka and asked him to design a portable machine to mill grain, Polifka started tinkering around in his workshop on the farm. He has a high school diploma and a certificate from diesel engine school, but he's been dreaming up machines for most of his life. Over the years, he's invented everything from an industrial-strength mulcher to a vehicle to carry implements around the farm.

Even so, it took him 15 years to make a tornado in a can that he was satisfied with. And though physicists and engineers are at a loss as to how exactly it works, he's happy to explain how he made it.

By taking a cone-shaped cylinder, capping it and making four openings, Polifka created what he thinks is the perfect environment for a high-speed vortex. He takes compressed air and shoots it through the openings, generating a miniature twister.

By the time Polifka had tinkered and tweaked the machine to the point where it did pretty much what he wanted, the grain buyer who originally asked him to make the portable mill had long since moved on to other things. So Polifka made a videotape and sent it to a few friends. A curiosity more than anything else, the tape didn't make much of an impression until it fell into the hands of a couple of Maryland guys who work in poultry-related businesses.

Mike Banks, who composts chicken waste among other things on the Eastern Shore, saw a copy of the tape and passed it along to David Winsness, a distributor of material-handling equipment to such poultry giants as Perdue and Tyson Foods.

They and a few others who joined the group to evaluate the product immediately saw the potential to solve a range of problems.

Each year, the U.S. poultry industry generates about 4 million tons of blood, feathers, heads, feet and entrails, including some 300,000 tons on the Delmarva Peninsula. An additional 50,000 tons of dissolved solids such as fat are skimmed from the wastewater stream, much of it sprayed on farm fields as fertilizer. And much of the 300 million tons of shells produced by laying hens each year is worked into the soil.

But with environmental laws making land disposal more difficult in some areas, poultry companies have sought new ways of handling that waste.

Enter the tornado in a can.

Running that material through a drier and then through Polifka's machine could produce a powder form of those poultry byproducts that could be sold as a flavoring or nutritious additive to pet foods or fertilizers, Winsness thought.

"The single most important quality of the tornado in a can is whatever goes into it comes out with its nutritional value," he said. "You can get four times the price of nonedible waste."

Last month, Polifka received a patent on the Windhexe. And word of it has spread worldwide.

Could it dry out huge stores of underground coal, an Australian company has asked, and make it a viable alternative to oil? Would it dehydrate duck manure, some farmers in Ireland wondered. Could it separate gold from sand and gravel, asked another company, thinking this could be a new way to squeeze greater profits from the ground.

You bet, its champions say, the possibilities are endless. To test their theory, the Vortex folks have thrown in rocks, diapers, tomatoes, sweet potato rejects from the farm down the road, 400 pounds of Oreo cookies, frozen pizza dough, even a dead bird.

The jellyfish, however, are a first.

From Puree to Powder

When Polifka switches on the huge compressor that sits outside the testing shed, the lights inside dim as the huge motor starts sucking air into the tank, enough to fill 50 tires a second.

It takes longer for Davis, the engineer, to feed the jellyfish puree into the machine than it takes the Windhexe to process it.

The goo was mixed ahead of time with a couple of buckets of egg membrane. Jellyfish and egg membrane are high in collagen-rich proteins, which DeBusk hopes to combine.

But it's extraordinarily difficult to derive collagens from them because jellyfish are so watery and because separating egg membrane from the shell requires either a lot of chemicals or a mechanical system that doesn't exist.

Until now. A couple of weeks earlier, Polifka threw a bunch of eggshells into his machine to see what would happen. It powderized the shells while leaving the membrane intact. He sent a bucket of membrane to DeBusk for inspection.

"I said, 'What did you do to get this stuff?' " DeBusk recalls asking the farmer. "It's amazing."

Now DeBusk is hoping to create a super-collagen by combining the jellyfish and egg membrane. Polifka cranks up the temperature in the cone as the vortex roars, and the superheated spiral of air evaporates the water in the jellyfish and bludgeons the remains into powder.

Within seconds, a fine white powder starts dropping from the opening at the bottom of the huge cone, and Polifka parks a wheelbarrow underneath to catch the dust. Compressing the air so it can be pumped into the cone at hundreds of miles per hour takes in excess of 200 kilowatts of electric power and costs about $12 per hour.

DeBusk can barely contain himself as he sticks his hand under the tornado in a can and sifts the results between his fingers. He figures it could be worth $2.50 -- or more -- a kilogram to pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies, which use tons of it a year.

"This could be very significant," says DeBusk, before scurrying off to fill buckets with the powder.

If all goes well, Polifka may someday end up rich, his name forever associated with an invention that puts a more pleasing face on some of the more unseemly byproducts of modern society.

But for now, all he is concerned about is cranking up another Windhexe and making sure it's working properly. There are machines to be tuned, settings to be tweaked, tests to be run.

Bring on the chickens!