MONTREAL - If a Quebec company has its way, dirty diapers normally destined for landfills will soon be transformed into a cost-effective, synthetic diesel fuel.

It's not such a stretch, says engineering and project management company AMEC, which is working on behalf of an as yet unnamed client to build a facility in the Montreal area that would use a process known as pyrolysis to convert diapers to diesel.

The concept has been around for ages and is continually changing, said Luciano Piciacchia, an engineer and vice-president with Amec's Quebec office.

"But some of the issues that come up with (the process) is the consistency of the material you're putting through," he added.

Enter diapers, which are in plentiful supply in area hospitals and consistent in their composition. The company is considering a collection system to ensure it gets the volume it requires.

"If we try to take municipal waste and run it through a system like this, it would be too variable and you'd get all sorts of nasty surprises you'd have to deal with," Piciacchia said.

"One of the beauties of the diaper is that it is going to be a very consistent input."

The initial plan is to convert about 30,000 diapers, about one-quarter of the diapers that end up in landfills in Quebec yearly. Piciacchia says that number of diapers will translate into about 11,000 tonnes of diesel fuel. The preliminary economic analysis pegs the cost of the fuel at 50 cents per litre.

Pyrolysis, also known as thermal cracking, involves heating up the diapers up in a closed, controlled environment at temperatures of up to 600C without air, essentially breaking them down thermally.

"Then you're bringing it to the next level which is breaking the carbon chains down ... and (in the end) they will resemble the fuels which are what we're going to end up producing," Piciacchia said.

The so-called diaper diesel can be used in just about any industrial application, but probably won't be suitable for use in an automobile, Piciacchia said.

"The other beauty of it is because this whole thing works in a closed system, there are no emissions," he added.

David Bressler of the University of Alberta says pyrolysis is a "very hot area of research right now" as industry looks for ways to further develop biofuel production technology.

"There is a lot of good things about this class of technology, there aren't a lot of negatives," Bressler said. "Right now, they're just figuring out how to make the process cost-efficient ... that's really the catch in the bio-industrial side."

Piciacchia says there are plenty of companies looking at other potential feedstocks.

One of his company's clients is looking at car fluff - the non-metallic parts in a car -- while another is looking at roof shingles as a potential source.

With fingers crossed, Piciacchia says a diaper diesel plant could be in operation in the Montreal area within the 18 months.

Bressler says the science is sound, but there will be some bumps along the way as they attempt to turn it into a profitable industry.

"You kind of have to hit the ground to get going and then once you're at that scale, you can go back and gain the efficiency you need to be long-term competitive," Bressler said.

Don Smith, a professor in the plant sciences department at McGill University, says with the process improving, diapers could certainly fly.

"Economically, you're turning a waste stream into a resource stream, and that works pretty well," Smith said. "It could fly and it would be good if it did fly. There are a lot of these diapers going to landfills and it would just be great if we could convert these into something useful."