17 March 2009

Plasmic energy

It's hard to not be skeptical of innovative "green" technologies, but this one actually seems pretty cool. Florida's St. Lucie County has announced plans to team up with Jacoby Energy (a self-proclaimed "environmentally friendly" corporation) to develop the United States' first plasma gasification plant. This would allow the county to not only produce energy via landfill waste, but to also- hopefully- reduce the need for landfills at all.

According to Scientific American, creating and maintaining such a system is a fairly complicated process. Electrical energy would be used to heat solid waste up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and this waste would then be broken down into plasmic ore that can be used to generate electricity. The new, Floridian plant has been estimated to produce enough energy to power more than 50,000 homes.

But all of this is not an entirely new concept. Inhabitat explains that NASA invented the idea of gasification over forty years ago as a way to create proper re-entry temperatures for shuttles and satellites. And Taiwan, Japan, Canada, and England have all touted the establishment of their own plasma gasification plants. While these systems have not come without criticism, they have also been acclaimed by engineers, environmentalists, and chemists throughout the world.

Being the overly-skeptical cynic that I am, I had a few questions about the environmental safety and "greenness" of plasmic gasification. A few minutes of research, however, led me to find some scientifically-sound answers:

  • Question: Wouldn't gasification plants release harmful chemicals and metals into our atmosphere? Answer: Not necessarily. Landfill incinerators don't have to gasify every item in the trash. Some items, like those containing lead or mercury, would most likely be spared from incineration. No answer yet on the sulphur and chlorine contained in plastics.
  • Question: Is this process actually sustainable? Wouldn't we be wasting a ton of energy to keep the plant running? Answer: Some scientists argue that gasification is a highly sustainable process. The only energy really required is the power used to start the plant. After that, the gasification process is self-sustaining. It will be able to power itself.
I don't claim to be an expert at chemistry or physics, and I know just as much about energy and plasma as the next person. Plasma gasification, as wordy and initially-inconceivable as it is, has nevertheless managed to spark my interest in aspects of "going green" that I had really never considered. It will be interesting to see how this technology pans out in the future.

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