A University of Illinois research team is working on turning pig manure into a form of crude oil that could be refined to heat homes or generate electricity.

Years of research and fine-tuning are ahead before the idea could be commercially viable, but results so far indicate there might be big benefits for farmers and consumers, according to lead researcher Yanhui Zhang.

``This is making more sense in terms of alternative energy or renewable energy and strategically for reducing our dependency on foreign oil,'' says Zhang, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering.

The thermochemical conversion process uses intense heat and pressure to break down the molecular structure of manure into oil. It's similar to the natural process that turns organic matter into oil over centuries, but in the laboratory the process can take as little as a half-hour.

A similar process is being used at a turkey plant in Carthage, Mo., where ConAgra Foods which is in a joint venture with Long Island-based Changing World Technologies.

But converting manure is sure to catch the attention of pork producers. ``If this ultimately becomes one of the silver bullets to help the industry, I'm absolutely in favor of it,'' says Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers Association.

Zhang and his research team have found that converting manure into crude oil is possible in small batches, but more research is needed to develop a continuously operating reaction chamber that could handle large amounts of manure. That is key to making the process practicable and economically viable.

Zhang predicts that one day a reactor the size of a home furnace could process the manure generated by 2,000 hogs at a cost of about $10 per barrel. In a best-case scenario, $1.5 billion in crude oil imports could be saved each year if 50 percent of the nation's swine farms used the technology.

Also, he estimates the value of hogs would increase $10 to $15 each if the oil that their manure produces could be sold for $30 per barrel.

Big oil refineries are unlikely to purchase crude oil made from converted manure, says Zhang because they aren't set up to refine it. But the oil could be used to fuel smaller electric or heating plants, or to make plastics, ink or asphalt, he adds.

For more information, go to Yanhui Zhang's Web site at: http://www.age.uiuc.edu/faculty/yhz/index.htm

Associated Press