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S4 Breaks Trash Down to Component Atoms, Recombines Using Plasma

| Wednesday March 10th, 2010 | 10 Comments

Since I’ve been covering Waste Management (WM) over the past few weeks, I couldn’t pass up this most recent news. Waste Management has created a joint venture with InEnTec (introduced previously on TriplePundit), called S4 Energy Solutions LLC, which will develop, market and operate plasma gasification facilities.

Last week they announced plans to develop a plasma gasification facility at Waste Management’s Columbia Ridge Landfill in Arlington, Oregon.  At first, this facility will process medical waste and other segregated waste streams.  Prior to the joint venture, InEnTech’s technology has often been used to process chemical residuals.  If it proves cost effective, the facility may also be used to process municipal solid waste (MSW).  The result of the plasma gasification process is clean fuel and inert glass-like substance which can be used as a building material.  The facility plans to be in operation by the end of the year, creating 28 jobs in the construction phase and 16 long term “green” jobs.  Since S4 does not burn the trash, emissions “easily comply with all environmental regulations” including EPA standards according to InEnTec’s site.

How does it work?

The gasification process revolves around InEnTec’s PEM™ process, or Plasma Enhanced Melter technology.  Waste Management will haul waste to the facility, which will be fed first into a gasifier where partial oxidization gasifies some of the waste.  Then the waste falls into the PEM chamber where it sits atop a “molten glass bath.”  A plasma arc heats the waste, up to 10,000 degrees, which breaks the chemical bonds. This enables atoms to break apart and recombine in a more useful way (a lot of things are more useful than pesky medical waste). Because of this, PEM has been used to deal with chemicals and other difficult to dispose of wastestreams.   At this point, the inorganic waste falls to the bottom: Metals drain and can be recycled; all other inorganic substances turns into a glass-like substance, which can be used to make useful things like building bricks.   The organic materials however are released and rise up as synthesis gas (or syngas).  Syngas can be converted to ethanol, hydrogen and other fuels.   Still curious?  You can view videos of the PEM process at S4energysolutions.com as well as here.

I’m trying to guess what sort of issues readers will have with this technology.  The only things I can think is that perhaps the energy use of such a facility is formidable, and also it may dissuade residents from being overly cautious about waste production.  This does not encourage ZeroWaste, rather I see this as complementary to such a movement.  What do you think?


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  • Terry A

    This technology is really interesting, but any info on how much energy it takes to run that thing? That's a pretty big missing piece of the picture.

    Is this technology the same idea? http://www.jsonline.com/business/83410837.html

    • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com/ Nick Palmer

      Hi Terry.
      Yup, the technology is pretty much the same. In the article you link to, they repeatedly refer to the energy from plasma plants like this as “renewable”. That's a huge greenwash! Unless they are plasma'ing (or whatever the verb is…) biofuels specifically grown for conversion into energy, it's pretty deceptive to claim what they are doing.

  • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com/ Nick Palmer

    Hi Amie, further to my last comment on your previous post. Our group looked at plasma vitrification. IF you're going to dispose of large quantities of combustible rubbish, then it's probably the best system – it gets around the problem of disposing of toxic fly ash. You're right that the energy return is less than for conventional incineration unless the feed material is highly selected.

    Perhaps a clue to why they are probably not overall a good solution is in Metals drain and can be recycled. An aspect of these types of waste handling plant is that they discourage separation of recyclables (by the householder) by virtue of the fact that any local authority may prefer a system that doesn't require the householder to keep the cans/metals out of the refuse because they then wouldn't have to instigate a separate can collection… Many householders would prefer to just throw away cans into the refuse as before and if they know that the plasma system is recovering molten metal they'll probably think everything is OK. The metal, however, will be a mixed up “alloy” of iron, copper, aluminium etc so will not be that valuable – certainly less valuable than if the cans etc were separated first.

    The point I am hoping to make is that the very act of separating recyclables from waste (at home) is a very powerful educational tool. When people participate in a system that requires them to separate, they quickly learn what products and materials are reusable and recyclable and, more importantly, which are not. They also get a feel for how much they waste as a percentage of the whole.They see a measurable target in a zero waste strategy and know how far they have to go. Systems that allow waste to be collected unseparated can not help much with this.

    Knowing what you can recycle or not, and how quickly your refuse bin fills up if you don't, tends to make people make different purchasing decisions – which is where the gold mine of waste reduction strategy is to be found.

    I'm saying the long term psychological changes caused by committed household separation of recyclables will have more of an effect on us getting closer to zero waste, and may be more important than any benefits claimed by simple L.C.A. calculations (which do not include the embodied energy of manufacture) as to how much energy is saved, or otherwise, if hi-tech waste handling machinery is used.

    • http://twitter.com/amievaccaro Amie Vaccaro

      Nick,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. And I totally agree. Material separation at the household level is crucial. And at the end of the day I'm very much a proponent of behavior change, first and foremost, technology solutions second. I think this plasma technology is still very new and unproven and potentially energy intensive as Terry pointed out. I think it should complement education of consumers, and other means to achieving zero waste. For me it's not clear that there is one simple path that gets us there. There is so much to do and many ways of doing it. I applaud that WM is exploring options for their side of the deal (once the consumer tosses the waste), and others of us need to be focused on consumer education. If gasification indeed discourages proper sorting as you suggest, I agree that would be a big problem.

  • Paul Ledesma

    Amie,

    I'd like to refer you and the other readers to this recent op-ed column in the Sacramento Bee regarding the problems with high temperature conversion (i.e., incineration). In addition to the issues raised in this piece and discussed above, there are other issues that should also be mentioned: (1) What kinds of material material are you burning? Rubbish? Trash? What exactly are we talking about? Paper? Organic matter? Plastic? (2) If you recover these materials, and anything else that has value, is there really enough BTU value in the residue to make it work? Is this really “highest best use?” (3) To the best of my knowledge – and I have researched this – no one has turned a profit burning garbage with “plasma” “gasification” or any of the other exotic forms of incineration. Sure, there are demonstration projects and some of these processes have been used with non-MSW feedstocks. But not burning garbage.

    Frankly, I don't like the idea that viable, sustainable, and green systems such as composting, aneroebic digestion, or good old fashioned recycling having to compete with exotic incineration for feedstocks. Especially when incineration is being hard sold by industry giants.

    http://www.sacbee.com/325/story/2407629.html

    • http://twitter.com/amievaccaro Amie Vaccaro

      Paul,
      Thanks as always for your contributions to this discussion.

      I think the plasma gasification technology is most interesting for difficult materials and I agree that MSW is better dealt with in a less energy intensive manner. Unfortunately, I think arguments can be made against recycling even. I imagine when recycling came out, folks had similar reactions against it as some of us do against plasma gasifications. It's high energy and encourages single use plastic, metal and glass bottles. So it's hard to be cut and dry. I don't really see plasma as competing with the solutions we already have on hand – compost, recycling. I hope it doesn't at least.

      I think we're in an exploration period. We need a whole lot of experimental innovation and hopefully over time we'll hone in on the best solutions. I'm glad WM is eager to support that process.

  • ne1scott

    You should really check out this article about one of the front-runners in plasma gasification technology. It's from popular science magazine and it should answer all of your questions and leave you in awe of the technology. http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2007-03/p

    I am a big fan of the technology and am convinced it will change the world. I am a computer tech and don't work for any of these companies.

  • Paul Ledesma

    The Popular Science article is a nice portrait of a self-made man. I looks like Mr. Longo may have developed an improved method of disposing of chemical weapons. What has been traditionally called Municipal Solid Waste is a different matter. As long as we continue to view MSW as a problem to solve, rather than a resource that can be diverted to higher and better uses, Mr. Longo's invention will resonate with those who seek a magic bullet solution. Paper products, plastics, organic material are valuable resources that could become new paper, plastics and much needed organic matter for agriculture. They also burn very well. If we choose to embrace this technology then we will just be perpetuating a mid-20th century disposable society. Mr. Longo's invention in just a continuation of this old way of thinking.

  • http://twitter.com/amievaccaro Amie Vaccaro

    Nick,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. And I totally agree. Material separation at the household level is crucial. And at the end of the day I'm very much a proponent of behavior change, first and foremost, technology solutions second. I think this plasma technology is still very new and unproven and potentially energy intensive as Terry pointed out. I think it should complement education of consumers, and other means to achieving zero waste. For me it's not clear that there is one simple path that gets us there. There is so much to do and many ways of doing it. I applaud that WM is exploring options for their side of the deal (once the consumer tosses the waste), and others of us need to be focused on consumer education. If gasification indeed discourages proper sorting as you suggest, I agree that would be a big problem.

  • http://twitter.com/amievaccaro Amie Vaccaro

    Paul,
    Thanks as always for your contributions to this discussion.

    I think the plasma gasification technology is most interesting for difficult materials and I agree that MSW is better dealt with in a less energy intensive manner. Unfortunately, I think arguments can be made against recycling even. I imagine when recycling came out, folks had similar reactions against it as some of us do against plasma gasifications. It's high energy and encourages single use plastic, metal and glass bottles. So it's hard to be cut and dry. I don't really see plasma as competing with the solutions we already have on hand – compost, recycling. I hope it doesn't at least.

    I think we're in an exploration period. We need a whole lot of experimental innovation and hopefully over time we'll hone in on the best solutions. I'm glad WM is eager to support that process.