I have seen the future of trash. It's
hot. It's very hot. It's 7,000 degrees Celsius.
I speak of plasma arc, an emerging
technology that can, among other things, zap garbage with so much
heat that mountains of trash turn into piles of pebbles (and you
can reuse the pebbles). There's no ash, no emission and no pollution.
I saw a presentation on plasma arc
last week in Hartford by one of the field's leading experts, Louis
J. Circeo of Georgia Tech.
It's almost breathtaking, what this
someday might do for Greater Hartford. Not only doesn't plasma arc
require a landfill, it can melt an existing one.
As you are doubtless aware, we have
a garbage problem. Connecticut generates 400,000 more tons of trash
than we can dispose of each year, and so we have to ship it out
of state, at considerable expense. The Hartford landfill is due
to end its overlong existence late next year, and many other landfills
in the state are close to the end of their useful lives as well.
We can and should do better on the
supply end - more recycling and not as much packaging. That would
help, but it won't solve the trash problem. Plasma arc might.
Circeo, a stocky, gray-haired, avuncular
fellow, explained that plasma arc is essentially artificial lightning.
Plasma is ionized gas, which some consider the "fourth state
of matter." Through a process I won't pretend to understand,
electrical current in plasma can create a "plasma torch"
that burns at a temperature in excess of 7,000 degrees C. That is
three times hotter than the temperature at which fossil fuels burn.
It is hotter than the surface of the sun.
What it does is cause organic compounds
to dissociate into their elemental components, which then recombine
as simple gases that can be burned for fuel. The inorganic residue
melts into a substance much like black volcanic glass, which can
be used for bricks or roadfill.
Scientists at NASA refined plasma arc
technology in the 1960s to test heat shields for space vehicles.
The steel and metallurgical industries use it, and environmental
engineers began working with it in the 1980s to treat municipal,
hazardous and toxic wastes, Circeo said.
The process will work on medical, electronic,
asbestos - about any kind of waste short of spent nuclear fuel rods.
Thus far, three plasma arc waste-to-energy
plants have been built, all in Japan. The French have a plasma plant
for disposing of asbestos. This country has a few projects on the
drawing board, including a plant in Atlanta for scrap tires. One
of the remarkable potentialities, though it is just emerging from
the lab, is something called in-situ remediation. The idea is to
bore holes in existing landfills, drop the torch down into the holes
and zap the contents. Circeo said it can reduce the mass of a landfill
by 90 percent and eliminate environmental hazards at the bottom
of the dump. It then becomes possible to reuse the land. This would
put nearly 100 acres along the river in the North Meadows - the
site of the current landfill - back in play. Imagine.
"If you wanted to, you could use
it for a landfill again," Circeo said. I think not.
As with many new technologies, there
are challenges with size and cost. The largest plant now operating
handles 300 tons of municipal waste a day. There's one in the planning
stages that will do 1,000 tons. The 70 towns in the Connecticut
Resources Recovery Authority's area generate about 2,500 tons of
trash a day. The cost can now be gotten down to a competitive rate,
$50-$80 a ton, though the Georgia Tech researchers have further
cost-reduction measures in the pipeline.
One is to produce rock wool, a sought-after
insulation and soundproofing material, with the inorganic residue.
Another is to hook up a plasma arc plant to a coal-burning power
plant. By using parts of the coal-fired plant, such as the electrical
generator and gas treatment chamber, the cost of the trash plant
is cut in half.
Where does all of this leave Hartford?
At the moment, just getting started.
Former city Councilman Mike McGarry
and city Councilman Robert Painter have been looking at this technology
for some time, and prevailed on public works Director Bhupen Patel
to visit Georgia Tech and see for himself. Patel, no pushover for
the latest thing, was impressed. The city and the nonprofit group
Hartford 2000 brought Circeo to the city last week in the hope of
getting something started.
The folks at CRRA once dismissed this
- perhaps not incorrectly - as too expensive. But they've now gotten
interested in it.
It's certainly something to watch,
and Patel is forming a study group to further examine the process.
It might be possible to build a small plant to handle, say, medical
waste, which is now shipped out of state at considerable expense.
If that worked, we could go bigger.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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