Plasma-gasification

In our youth, we were taught cute rhymes about recycling and reducing to provide us with a hope for continuing awareness of the environment. But let’s be honest; it never stuck. Now the cute phrase that comes to my mind is, “plasma gasification, to remedy a wasteful nation.”

The idea behind plasma gasification comes from the law of conservation of matter, which states that matter cannot be created nor destroyed. Plasma gasification is a process that turns everyday waste into an energy resource. Maybe you’re thinking this is just a fancy word for biofuels, but there are two key differences between the two: the plasma process involves no incineration and emits no sulfur dioxide. In fact, there is no fire or smoke involved with plasma gasification. Instead, a device called the plasma torch shoots an electric current across an electrode assembly, ionizing an inert gas usually nitrogen or just air. This ionized gas becomes scorching hot – up to 27,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the molecular bonds are torn apart, leaving behind a syngas, a gas mixture of carbon monoxides, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. consisting mostly of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and slag that when cooled resembles obsidian. Once this garbage is obliterated, the leftover syngas is burned like natural gas, producing enough electricity to run the gasification plant as well as give energy back to the grid.

Though this method is new, cities such as New Orleans are currently considering this technology for their municipal waste sites. Sun Energy Group, an energy company based in New Orleans, believes that a plasma gasification facility would yield about 55.2 kilowatts of power per ton of trash. Additionally, the company claims that the gasification process would emit only very small amounts of carbon dioxide, comparable to a natural gas plant’s emissions.

However, the same problem that plagues solar and wind energy afflicts plasma gasification: simple economics. The cost of the plasma process, including the money to be made selling electricity back to the grid, is a hefty sum. It is speculated that the plasma gasification process would cost about $172 per ton of trash, while municipal landfills charge about $35 per ton. Plasma gasification proponents question these numbers, though; the Plasco Energy Group claims that due to increasing efficiency of plasma gasification, 46 percent of the processed waste becomes energy, compared to 18 percent for older technologies. Currently the methodology used to compute the cost of processing waste at landfills places plasma gasification at a severe economic disadvantage.

But the traditional methodology is lacking in identifying the global and strategic cost of the current technology. Landfills seep chemicals into water systems and eventually into our water supply. According to eia.doe.gov, rainwater flushes the hazardous liquids from municipal waste sites into nearby streams and groundwater supplies. Additionally, these sites affect the health of nearby residential sites. The website also points out that in addition to the health hazards of municipal landfills, a number of regions are running out of space to bury their waste. With all of these significant issues, the real question is why aren’t we costing out these effects when evaluating a technology that is more efficient in generating fuels and significantly more effective in eliminating the waste in terms of quantity and time?

If we are to adapt new technologies to improve our environment and quality of life, then we must incorporate new evaluation processes that eliminate built-in subsidies by not including a more global analysis of cost. That will require a major change in the mindset of many decision-makers in government. Before that happens, there may be hope in the more immediate future as oil prices have tripled over the past few years. For now, while plasma gasification remains underutilized, we can watch videos of the process on YouTube and continue to be hopeful.

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