Converting Garbage into Energy
February 17, 2007 7:22 AM   Subscribe

Mr Fusion - coming soon. Startech Environmental Corporation's "Plasma Converter" works like "the big bang in reverse," creating nothing out of something. With the ability to break down any type of material (other than nuclear waste) into component molecules and and actually generate energy in the process, we may be at the twilight of the landfill industry. Via.
posted by jonson (48 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If the article is to be believed, a device the size of a two car garage can handle all of the garbage for an entire city, would pay for itself in under 10 years, solves the landfill problem, the "trucking garbage out to a landfill" problem, the "handling greenhouse gases from decomposing trash at a landfill" problem and actually creates 33% more energy than it uses to run itself - energy which can then be sold back to the utility corporations.
posted by jonson at 7:24 AM on February 17, 2007

Science is so very cool.
posted by JamesToast at 7:24 AM on February 17, 2007

into component molecules and and actually generate energy in the process

Molecules? or did you mean Atoms? Are we talking about thermal depolymerization here?

Thermal depolymerization does not create energy, it uses it. But what it does is convert complex molecules into simple molecules that can be used as fuel for cars or whatnot. So you take waste products, and release the energy inside of them. But, it's net negative. So why do it? Well, you don't have to throw stuff out, and if you have a greenhouse free energy source like Nuclear power, you can use that energy to produce fuel from waste.

On the other hand, if the article is claiming that they've invented some sort of free energy machine, that actually produces any kind of positive energy output, then they're full of crap, most likely, or the authors of the article got it wrong, or Johnson got it wrong here and screwed up the FPP by linking the technology to cold fusion type B.S.

I'll read the article now.
posted by delmoi at 7:31 AM on February 17, 2007

I'll read the article now.

Excellent decision.
posted by jonson at 7:34 AM on February 17, 2007

It's always frustrating to read concerns about the safety of a technology like this:

Of course, the technology, still unproven on a large scale, has its skeptics. “That obsidian-like slag contains toxic heavy metals and breaks down when exposed to water,” claims Brad Van Guilder, a scientist at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which advocates for clean air and water. “Dump it in a landfill, and it could one day contaminate local groundwater.” Others wonder about the cleanliness of the syngas. “In the cool-down phases, the components in the syngas could re-form into toxins,” warns Monica Wilson, the international coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, in Berkeley, California.

... and then not to hear who's actually scientifically right. If the company's right, good tech. If the environmentalists are right, bad tech. Given that it sounds too good to be true, my guess is the latter. But I retain an open mind, as ever.
posted by imperium at 7:42 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Okay, the article seems pretty straightforward, but there is definetly some breathless crap (such as "Just like the big bang in reverse") that's just silly. No one is breaking apart atoms here, just molecules, which means, again, that it has nothing to do with "fusion" or is like the big bang or anything like that. Writing like that confuses the issue, and draws parallels to the myriad of free energy scams out there.
posted by delmoi at 7:47 AM on February 17, 2007

I think you're right about it being the former, delmoi. The article says it uses about 2/3rd of the energy produced from the trash to power the machine itself. The net result isn't a profit for the waste removal; it's just a smaller deficit than current methods.

Also, you noted a small problem with this as a universal system in your own comment, delmoi- the machine dissoved everything except nuclear waste. Given that widescale use of a machine that needs to produce the radiant equivalent of a small sun would almost guarantee the need for nuclear power, the increased nuclear waste potential seems to be a dangerous tradeoff.

I'm optimistic that cleaner energy production will exist in this lifetime, and even being pro-environment I'm willing to concede increases in nuclear power usage are an inevitabilitiy. But nothing, not even this machine, makes waste just "disappear." As imperium noted, the potential for this to be making by-product far more dangerous than trash does is high.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:50 AM on February 17, 2007

This article/announcement follows a typical pattern. I've seen it before. There are breathless claims of an astounding breakthrough, which can solve a major problem completely and easily if only the developing company is given some money to keep improving their technology.

The "turkey guts" announcement from a few years ago was exactly the same. What you're seeing is hype intended to encourate VC money.

Here's a quiz: when's the last time you heard of a garage inventor whose radical new machine actually did fulfill the hype and revolutionize some field?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:58 AM on February 17, 2007

when's the last time you heard of a garage inventor whose radical new machine actually did fulfill the hype and revolutionize some field?

Well there's the Apple computer, but I'd say more recently the artificial diamond. Hands-down it's a successful enterprise and it will hopefully soon alter the face of the jewelry industry and end a centuries-long industry that thrives on near-slavery human exploitation.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 8:01 AM on February 17, 2007

I think the fusion thing came from this:

Then, in 1972, Longo read a paper in a science journal about fusion reactors. “The authors speculated that plasma might be used to destroy waste to the elemental level someday in the future,” he recalls. “That was like a spear in the heart, because we had just got our patents out for our trash compactors, and these guys were already saying there’s a prettier girl coming to town,” he says. “It would make obsolete everything we were doing. I resisted looking at the technology for 10 years. But by 1984, it became obvious that plasma could do some serious work.”

In other words, he was inspired by the idea of nuclear fusion, but what he's doing isn't fusion. It takes a byproduct of fusion (plasma) and produces it directly with regular ole' electricity.

The claim is that the byproducts of the depolymerization process can be used to power the system. That may be possible. But like the environmentalists I'm not convinced that nothing toxic will come out of the system. Who knows what would be in that syngas? Table salt would get converted into chlorine gas and sodium metal, for example. It would need a lot more study to see what's actually being produced. There would also be mercury, lead, arsenic, and other elemental nastiness.

There is actually a Thermal Depolymerization plant that takes waste from a turkey plant, and produces oil. But unlike this thing, they are only trying to use biological waste sources at the moment.
posted by delmoi at 8:06 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Roman Polanski. Daycare center. I'm glad I came in here.
posted by DU at 8:08 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Roman Polanski Daycare Center? That's next to the John Gacy Clown College, right?
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 8:12 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Fueled with garbage from the local dump, the converter is fired up whenever Longo pitches visiting clients.

If it's a net energy generator, why don't they leave it on all the time?
posted by rkent at 8:12 AM on February 17, 2007

delmoi: The claim is that the byproducts of the depolymerization process can be used to power the system. That may be possible.
That would be dandy, but it looks to me like this story is actually claiming something slightly different:
...once the cycle is under way, the 2,200˚F syngas is fed into a cooling system, generating steam that drives turbines to produce electricity. About two thirds of the power is siphoned off to run the converter; the rest can be used on-site for heating or electricity, or sold back to the utility grid.
They're not burning the byproducts as fuel; they're just reclaiming heat from the hot byproducts -- and supposedly getting more energy back than went in. Plus they've got byproducts that can also be used for fuel on top of it.

Maybe the author of the article has gotten it wrong. Maybe this is just another wacky perpetual-motion scheme at heart. Either way, I don't think this adds up.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:56 AM on February 17, 2007

I think my understanding of the "net energy generation" is different from others commenting here. I mean, the machine clearly doesn't purport to violate the laws of thermodynamics, it simply states that after "ignition", so to speak, which they claim takes approximately the same amount of energy used to fire a taser, the machine is not only self-sufficient, pulling energy from the matter it is fed, but actually creates more energy than it uses. But the base material for all this energy EXISTS. It's doesn't generate energy from thin air, the energy is a by product of the destruction of waste. Similarly, I didn't get the impression that they had technology that would work "if only the developing company is given some money to keep improving their technology", as SDC claims, but rather that this is a product that they are selling and have sold and wish to sell more of. There wasn't a lot of talk of improvement in the article, just adoption.
posted by jonson at 8:57 AM on February 17, 2007

The Plasma Converter powers electronic equipment and lights. But the internal combustion engine runs on ordinary gasoline; it always has. There's not going to be a gas station in a lab until sometime in the next century.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 9:09 AM on February 17, 2007

That's exactly the kind of technology we are waiting for in this century.
Science fiction made real at its best.
Thanks, jonson: we need a dash of optimism every Saturday morning.

Now, let's hope it works better than flying cars.
posted by bru at 9:10 AM on February 17, 2007

It's a neat idea - you can certainly gain energy from breaking chemical bonds (though I admit surprise that you can gain more than you put in) - but the writing is lousy. You're not getting "nothing"...there's no breaking of the law of conservation of mass. There's no nuclear physics going on at all.

And the thing about nuclear waste and "indestructible" isotopes...that's kind of like pointing out that an orange juicer can't juice, um, well, juice. Nuclear waste is elemental - that is, it's not made up of molecules. The machine would be no better at consuming a chunk of non-radioactive lead. It's not a drawback, it's just an unrelated issue.
posted by solotoro at 9:12 AM on February 17, 2007

This article/announcement follows a typical pattern. I've seen it before. There are breathless claims of an astounding breakthrough, which can solve a major problem completely and easily if only the developing company is given some money to keep improving their technology

Yes, I've seen this before too. I started reading Popular Science when I was about 10, in 1972 or so. I became a long time subscriber in 1975. You see many of these kind of industrial start-up stories breathlessly reported, then you never hear about them again.

As a welder, I'm familiar with plasma technology, and as a tech-stunt, I discovered how well carbon fiber veil works as a plasma "fuel" for ball lightning in the microwave oven. The fundamental science is there.

I guess my question is whether it is a batch process or a continuous process. I suspect, but do not know, that you would damn near need a continuous process to be efficient. I also suspect that the gas coming off the process is a lot more complex and "dirty" than what they are telling us.

I hope it works, but I remain skeptical we will ever hear about this again...
posted by Tube at 9:18 AM on February 17, 2007

Looks and sounds fantastical. Think of how cool it will be to say (with an evil glint ):

SEND THAT FOUL GARBAGE TO [Cue arch dramatic musical punctuation] THE PLASMA CONVERTER!!! BWA HA HA HA HA HA!!! BWA HA HA HA HA!!!

It reminds me of all the amazing stuff I would read about in Popular Mechanics magazine as a kid. But if the machine dissolves everything but nuclear waste, Why doesn't it dissolve itself?
posted by Skygazer at 9:24 AM on February 17, 2007

I've been following this tech for years it is not a "flash in the pand" (I thought I made a FPP about it years ago, re: the Florida installation, but I'm having trouble finding it). There are downsides as to everything, but the downsides of this tech might be less than the downsides of the traditional landfill method.
posted by stbalbach at 9:32 AM on February 17, 2007

Hmm. I suspect poor writing rather than an actual claim that the second lawe of thermodynamics has been broken.
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on February 17, 2007

a centuries-long industry that thrives on near-slavery human exploitation

nah, the Gap is not that old...
posted by matteo at 9:58 AM on February 17, 2007

Western Infidels : Maybe the author of the article has gotten it wrong. Maybe this is just another wacky perpetual-motion scheme at heart. Either way, I don't think this adds up.

I don't think so. Perpetual motion and other 'free energy' machines claim to pull their power from the ether (or whatever). There is nothing like that suggested here; the machine uses fuel. Literally tons of it, it just happens that one of the byproducts of that is capable of producing energy rather than some other less useful waste product.

Even if all the other claims are false, I really hope that the one statement of being able to totally destroy anything non-nuclear is true. We have produced some really toxic and loathsome stuff over the years, and having the ability to vaporize it into something non-harmful would be fantastic.

I can't speak to the science of this, but if it turns out to be true, even only partially, it could be a real boon to civilization. Eliminating one unwanted product (trash) by converting it to something more useful (fuel, electricity) would solve a lot of our planet's problems.
posted by quin at 10:12 AM on February 17, 2007

It's an incinerator, with an energy-recovery subsystem, and
the potential of relatively simple emissions. And he hopes
that glassy slag is how the nongaseous products come out.
I suspect that he is going to have a problem with graphitic
carbon condensing (pdf) downstream of the reactor.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:35 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

C'mon, people. There is no claim that they're producing free energy, just that -- like any engine -- they're able to produce excess energy from a physical process, when combined with -- key word -- fuel. Your car does the same thing already -- unless you have to crank it by hand to get it to burn gasoline.

Nor is this a speculative technology -- it's already in use. Hitachi has been using a plasma converter since 2002, "which produces 8 megawatts of power by torching auto waste".

I'm sure that the company's energy recovery numbers are somewhat optimistic -- but I don't see why it can't recover hydrogen this way (which you can sell or burn).
posted by dhartung at 10:46 AM on February 17, 2007

While there's certainly lots of energy that could be extracted from organic molecules, and while you could certainly use a plasma torch to break down just about everything, most complex compounds are in a lower overall energy state than their constituents. So whether you get any energy out of this at all totally depends on what you feed it.

Now look at the list of garbage ingredients they plan on feeding it: “It’s mostly old tile, wood, nails, glass, metal and wire all mixed together.” The wood sounds good, but they're no way you're going to extract any chemical bond energy out of metal, glass, tile, or wire. Ever try burning a nail? or a tile? I mean, the glass bit is particularly amusing. You going to extract energy by converting glass to, um, glass?

Something's not right here, but it's not physics.
posted by cytherea at 10:49 AM on February 17, 2007

Also, what is this stupid obsession with hydrogen? Ever notice in the diagrams of the fuel cell vehicles that the whole undercarriage is a giant liquid hydrogen storage tank? There's a reason for that: hydrogen has lousy energy density with regards to volume, even in liquid form. And that's never going to get any better. We are never, ever going to be driving hydrogen cars, anymore then we'll ever be driving electric cars.

Gasoline is magic. (Magically energy dense, that is.)
posted by cytherea at 11:10 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

cytherea : Ever try burning a nail? or a tile?

No, but then I never had access to anything that could produce 30,000˚ Fahrenheit.

At three times hotter than the surface of the sun, everything is flammable.
posted by quin at 11:10 AM on February 17, 2007

No, everything isn't. Sure, you can strip off the electrons and produce a plasma. But that's not the same thing as flammable. Flammable means a self sustaining chemical reaction. If your interested in extracting energy, then what's important is the energy density of the stuff going in versus the energy density of the stuff coming out.

Granted, most garbage is organic. And it would be excellent for toxic materials. But it's far more economical to simply recycle glass and steel.
posted by cytherea at 11:29 AM on February 17, 2007

quin: I'd say "flammable" implies that you're doing combustion. Combustion is exothermic and you can use that heat to generate electricity. In this case, you're spending a lot of energy to break stuff down. Heat comes out, but you're using it to break more stuff down. Not really "self-sustaining" in the way combustion is.
posted by rxrfrx at 11:32 AM on February 17, 2007

Fair enough. Flammable was a bad word choice on my part. But a lot of this discussion focusing on the extracting energy part of the process, and I don't think that is the primary goal here. They just want to destroy the materials, the fact that energy is produced seems to be a useful byproduct more than anything else.

Sure, a nail won't necessarily produce the same energetic output as organic material, but I don't think that is the point; the fact that you start with a nail and end up with virtually nothing is the important part.

And yes, the nail would be better used if it was recycled, but I think that the excitement over this device (assuming it works) is that if a nail isn't recycled and somehow makes it's way into the machine, it won't disrupt the operation.
posted by quin at 11:42 AM on February 17, 2007

...a lot of this discussion is focusing...

sorry 'bout that.

posted by quin at 11:43 AM on February 17, 2007

That nail will burn, and produce a lot of heat. All metals burn, they just aren't usually divided up finely enough to make it self sustaining or "lit" at a high enough temperature. If you have a finely divided aluminium of zinc or nickel powder, these are very flammable, and extrememly dangerous because of that. Hell, take a normal steel wool pad, stretch it out, put it in an oxygen rich atmosphere and light it and it will go up like a flare. Any metal going into that hot a flame would be instantly aeresolized and ignite.

Metal oxides are way downhill thermodynamically, I assume that might be the reason that they are using normal air in this process as opposed to inert nitrogen, but I haven't really checked the details. It would be nice to see a real scientific article on this as oppsed to what amounts to a press release.
posted by roquetuen at 12:02 PM on February 17, 2007

Fair enough.

But to be pedantic, you're not going to reduce glass, rocks, ceramics, or steel into a more compact form using this process either. Of course, it saves you from having to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
posted by cytherea at 12:07 PM on February 17, 2007

You know, even if all this thing did was reduce the volume of the waste, it would be useful. If it torches toxic compunds (think DDT, etc) into less toxic and more manageable forms, it's useful. If it means no more garbage barges no one wants because the facility can be located near the waste generating city, it's useful.

Anything further is a bonus. Even if you could feed a trickle of energy back into the grid from materials that would otherwise be simply buried while accomplishing ANY of the above, it's a worthwhile device.
posted by maxwelton at 12:34 PM on February 17, 2007

We are never, ever going to be driving hydrogen cars, anymore then we'll ever be driving electric cars.

While we're being pedantic, this is empirically not true. I've driven both. Most recently, I was the passenger in a modified Mercedes A-Series fuel-cell car, driven around town by the concierge from a Singapore hotel. We refueled at the world's first gas-station-style hydrogen filling station, where the hydrogen was generated automatically by an on-site electrolyzer that pulled its juice off the city grid. It was all set up by a crazy little company called BP.

This isn't to say it's destined to happen that one day I'll have my own fuel-cell car out in the garage next to the composter and the plasma converter, but this never, ever horseshit is analogous to the computer scientists in the '50s who reckoned a half-dozen mainframes ought to be all we'd ever need. And the stakes in this game are far too high to dismiss any solution out of hand.
posted by gompa at 12:37 PM on February 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Roman Polanski Daycare Center? That's next to the John Gacy Clown College, right?

FYI, there really is a "Richard Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom."
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:56 PM on February 17, 2007

Metafilter: I'll read the article now
posted by found missing at 1:00 PM on February 17, 2007

What if there is a breach in the warp core?
What then????
posted by Dizzy at 1:42 PM on February 17, 2007

MetaFilter: Roman Polanski Daycare Centre.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:50 PM on February 17, 2007

What if there is a breach in the warp core?
What then????

That's easy. You just reverse the polarity.
posted by lekvar at 2:05 PM on February 17, 2007

Needs a "gnabgib" tag.
posted by BeerFilter at 2:23 PM on February 17, 2007

b1tr0t, sure. But that's not the claim of the article. I was virtually shaking my head at the folks upthread who simply dismiss this out of hand. Like 99% of these contraptions, it probably won't pan out, but if it does, then my contention stands.
posted by maxwelton at 3:16 PM on February 17, 2007

b1tr0t writes "Today we could send all of our toxic waste, even the radioactive stuff, into the sun. We don't because it is far too expensive to do so."

That and the risk of the delivery module going kaboom in the upper atmosphere spreading that waste around the globe.
posted by Mitheral at 5:10 PM on February 17, 2007

Plasma funeral internment, I want to be vaporized.
posted by hortense at 5:39 PM on February 17, 2007

That article makes me want to apply 30,000 degrees of pure plasma goodness to the soft and danglies of whichever editor let it through. Where's the frickin' science?

You know you're in trouble when you read lines like "a 650-volt current". Volts is volts. Amps is amps. Put them together and you start to learn something useful about the power equations in the device - but no, we don't go there. We futz about. And then there's the 'obsidian-like slag' which can be used for building materials - only it's also full of 'heavy metals' and breaks down in water. Hel-lo? Which is it? If I was editing that piece, it would go straight back to the writer with a strongly-worded request for some details that explain that particular contradiction. Contradictions and paradox are good - they're at the heart of much great reportage - but the writer's job is to make them plain enough that the reader can understand how they arise and what they might mean. What they actually mean -- well, that's the difference between reporting a story and commenting on it, and that's another story. This is a report. So report, sunshine.

This device is not a transmuter. What you put in, atomically, is what you'll get out. And while there are plenty of toxic organics that will be nicely fried in there, you'll get just as much lead and sulphur and mercury and lithium and whatever left over at the end of it. Sure, the article touches on this, but what it needs to have is some facts. Numbers. What compounds are formed using normal waste? What's the toxicity of that slag? What else is in that syngas, and what are the implications of dealing with it?

Things like the power requirements, the energy abstractable from the output, the precise nature of the waste products, are absolutely key to forming an opinion about the viability of this device. The editor and journalist clearly think it's important enough to bring it to our attention, so why welch on the deal by then not asking the questions which matter?

Facts. Numbers. Science. Are they so hard to include that we're treated instead to the guy's taste in clothing? By all means, tell me where he buys his underpants if you think it'll make the article more interesting, but not at the expense of the actual science. Jeez. Popular is good. Science is good. If you have both in your title, you'd better have both in the book.

And since I'm ranting, how about that Make magazine? Was I ever disappointed with that. It's Reader's Digest reborn for the iPod popeyes, mastubatory tech porn for Prof Pat Pending wannabies. Not that there's anything wrong with that - but how about including just a little something from time to time that explains what's going on in a way that'll let the lights go on and the readers start to think things up for themselves? I remember Circuit Cellar's glory years in Byte, or the Amateur Scientist in Scientific American. You might not make one in a hundred of those projects, but you always learned something by reading the articles.

Reality-based journalism. Is it so much to ask for?
posted by Devonian at 3:36 AM on February 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

... Byte magazine. Those were the days, weren't they. Steve Ciarcia still puts out Circuit Cellar magazine.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:45 AM on February 18, 2007

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