With the right facilities, a plasma ray, and a big enough facility, municipal garbaged can be blasted into elemental components used to make gas. Only one-third of our waste has a chance at being recycled now. Plasma arcs could take care of the rest. David Wolman reports from the February edition of Wired Magazine.
There is, in fact, value in trash—if you can unlock it. That’s what this facility in northern Oregon is designed to do. Run by a startup called S4 Energy Solutions, it’s the first commercial plant in the US to use plasma gasification to convert municipal household garbage into gas products like hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can in turn be burned as fuel or sold to industry for other applications.
The household waste delivered into this hangar will get shredded, then travel via conveyer to the top of a large tank. From there it falls into a furnace that’s heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and mixes with oxygen and steam. The resulting chemical reaction vaporizes 75 to 85 percent of the waste, transforming it into a blend of gases known as syngas (so called because they can be used to create synthetic natural gas). The syngas is piped out of the system and segregated. The remaining substances, still chemically intact, descend into a second vessel.
This cauldron makes the one above sound lukewarm by comparison. Inside, two electrodes aimed toward the middle of the vessel create an electric arc that, at 18,000 degrees, is almost as hot as lightning. This intense, sustained energy becomes so hot that it transforms materials into their constituent atomic elements. The reactions take place at more than 2,700 degrees, which means this isn’t incineration—this is emission-free molecular deconstruction.
Trash-to-fuel technology has in fact been around since the 1970s and involves burning waste to generate electricity. But that method, no matter how fancy your emissions scrubbers, invariably produces a stew of byproducts that need to be disposed of. Consequently, environmentalists—and some in the industry itself—have remained skeptical of trash-to-fuel. Nevertheless, Rush and his team suspected that entrepreneurs might have cracked the problem and began searching for experimental technologies to invest in. Among the more than two dozen companies Waste Management has recently added to its portfolio are a startup with a specialized method for producing compost, a firm that uses gasification to turn biomass into synthetic gas, and a company that converts mixed and contaminated waste plastic into synthetic crude oil.
The technology may not be new, but it certainly has to prove itself though efficiency, containment of byproducts and relative cost. I do take comfort in my waste being atomically disassembled, it’s certainly more glorious a prospect then sitting in piles of being burried underground. Soon enough, Mr. Fusion will be able to power both the time circuits and flux capacitor.