S4 Breaks Trash Down to Component Atoms, Recombines Using Plasma

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?

Amie runs Cobblestone Solutions, LLC, a consultancy focusing on business development, marketing, communications and strategy for mission driven companies. Previously, Amie served as Director of Business Development for Viv (a Bay Area environmental start-up), Program Manager for Social Venture Technology Group (a boutique consulting firm focused on measuring social and environmental impact), and Associate Consultant at Bain & Co (a global management consulting firm). She is particularly interested in innovations that reduce waste, altering consumer behavior for good, and leveraging the power of business to solve the climate crisis. You can read more from her on her blog, on GreenBiz.com, and on JustMeans.