Hot Trash-To-Fuel Technology Gathering Steam
Author: Timothy Gardner
It may seem like an idea out of a mad scientist's notebook, but the method - known as plasma torch technology - is gaining acceptance with governments and corporations, especially those with growing waste problems.
"If you can reduce trash and at the same time produce a valuable gas, more power to you," said Charles Russomanno, a U.S. Department of Energy renewable energy expert.
Hospital waste, municipal trash and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an industrial compound suspected of causing cancer, all can be blasted with a plasma torch to make gases that can be burned to produce electricity.
Companies including privately owned Westinghouse Plasma Corp., spun off from Westinghouse Corp., Georgia-based Geoplasma, LLC, and British-based Tetronics Plasma ionize air or other gases until they conduct electricity. The process is similar to what goes on in a fluorescent light bulb - only at an extreme temperature of 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit (16,649 Celsius).
Plasma torches break waste into an obsidian-like stone, heavy metals that can be recovered for resale, and carbon and hydrogen-rich gases that burn like natural gas. One company, Startech Environmental, takes the process a step further, refining the gas through a membrane to make pure hydrogen gas for fuel cells.
Automobile and energy companies have invested billions of dollars in hydrogen fuel cells that produce power through a chemical reaction, with water vapor as the only byproduct.
President Bush has encouraged the race to hydrogen by seeking for next year's budget $228 million, a 43 percent increase, to develop fuel cell cars and suitable service stations. Last year, he launched a five-year, $1.2 billion research initiative with the aim of reducing dependence on foreign oil and putting fuel cell cars on the road by 2020.
Japan, where dumping costs are high, is becoming a world leader in plasma technology. In 2002, Hitachi Metals along with Utashinai City, helped build the first plasma plant, which produces 8 megawatts of power by torching auto waste.
Startech signed a $1.3 million contract last fall with Japan's Mihama Inc. to break down PCBs. In February, it signed a $34 million deal with Italian company FP Immobiliare to torch computer waste. It has also offered to operate a free test unit to treat some of New York City's waste.
"Where we put trash gets more expensive every day," said Carmen Cognetta, a counsel to the NYC Department of Sanitation.
Hydrogen is like seawater to the thirsty Ancient Mariner - it's everywhere, but not in a usable form. It's the most abundant element in the universe, but separating it from oxygen in water takes large amounts of energy.
Currently, most hydrogen is produced at oil refineries to meet petrochemical refining needs, although the process is expensive and the yields are small.
The cheapest energy source for separating hydrogen is coal, but burning it can produce hazardous amounts of greenhouse gases and toxic compounds.
In the future, energy may be provided by solar and wind power, which for now are too pricey.
So, torch technologies have potential, says Columbia University geophysicist Klaus Lackner. They will provide an additional niche "and if your hydrogen turns out to be cheaper than that of your competitor, then you have a great market."
Owen Connolly, director of product marketing at New York-based Plug Power Inc., a producer of fuel cell power systems, said 25 cubic feet of hydrogen produces 1 kilowatt hour (KWH) of electricity from its power units.
If the 225 million U.S. car tires disposed of annually were zapped by Startech units, enough hydrogen would be produced to supply 500,000 homes with electricity for an entire year.
The more toxic the garbage, the higher the "tipping fees" for municipalities and the more torch processors can collect.
New York City, which produces 12,000 tons of garbage per day and trucks it