Monday, January 23, 2012

Blasting Away 250 Million Tons Of Garbage

There is an excellent article by David Wolman in the February issue of Wired Magazine about the progress being made in the effort to use plasma technology to transform garbage into reusable gases such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide or electricity, in other words, energy.

Wolman humorously makes a great point when he writes that “we throw two-thirds of it in landfills while somehow managing to feel virtuous that we put last night’s empty wine bottle in the recycling bin.”  He also cites figures showing that the US generates about 250,000,000 tons of trash a year, with only about 85,000,000 tons of it being diverted into composting and recycling.

The article details the incredible progress made by a venture named S4 Energy Solutions, which, financed in part by millions of dollars in backing from the 12.5 billion dollar Waste Management, is refining a process to convert  municipal, commercial, industrial and medical waste streams into renewable energy and industrial products using plasma arc technology.

Given the the daily capacity of their test facility there may one day be up to 34,000 such plants making the nation’s 3000 active landfills obsolete and hopefully, even processing waste from more than 10,000 old ones to rescue at-risk groundwater.

The article reminded me of another article I read almost two decades ago by John McPhee in the New Yorker magazine, entitled Duty Of Care and again later in a compilation entitled Irons In The Fire detailing the now successful efforts by entrepreneurs to recycle what was then 250 million tires discarded each year in the US.  Today the annual number is more than 300 million tires or one per year for every person in the country.

I enjoy Wired Magazine and to me it is well worth the subscription to be able to read the full version of articles like these well before they  eventually appear the web, and ever since I began reading John McPhee's articles and books in the late 1970s (which by the way, was about the time work on plasma gasification began) I never miss an opportunity to  find a new one.

At the time of McPhee’s article there were over 1 billion discarded tires in massive stockpiles around the country but today 90% of all tires generated annually are now being recycled to an end-use market and the number of remaining stockpiles is down around 100 million, so I don't find it strange at all to believe that one day in the near future 100% of all garbage could be recycled into energy.

Even 36 years after it was first published, McPhee’s book entitled Coming Into The Country captures the essence of The Great Land, where I lived and worked most of the 1980s, better than any other.

But then again I am the kind of guy who’s fascinated by the How It’s Made TV series on the Science Channel.

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