magical electricity

The Prophet of Garbage

It sounds as if someone just dropped a tricycle into a meat grinder. [...] Inside a sealed vessel, a 650-volt current passing between two electrodes rips electrons from the air, converting the gas into plasma. Current flows continuously through this newly formed plasma, creating a field of extremely intense energy very much like lightning. The radiant energy of the plasma arc is so powerful, it disintegrates trash into its constituent elements by tearing apart molecular bonds. The system is capable of breaking down pretty much anything except nuclear waste, the isotopes of which are indestructible. The only by-products are an obsidian-like glass used as a raw material for numerous applications, including bathroom tiles and high-strength asphalt, and a synthesis gas, or "syngas" -- a mixture of primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide that can be converted into a variety of marketable fuels, including ethanol, natural gas and hydrogen.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the process is that it's self-sustaining. Startech's Plasma Converter draws its power from the electrical grid to get started. The initial voltage is about equal to the zap from a police stun gun. But once the cycle is under way, the 2,200F syngas is fed into a cooling system, generating steam that drives turbines to produce electricity. About two thirds of the power is siphoned off to run the converter; the rest can be used on-site for heating or electricity, or sold back to the utility grid.

(I'm not sure I understand how that last part doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics...)

"We'll get all our garbage to disappear, and our landfill will be gone in 20 years," he tells me. "We'll generate 160 megawatts a day from the garbage, but we'll consume only 40 megawatts to run the plant. We'll sell the net energy to the local power grid." [...]

"All the landfills around New York have closed, incinerators are banned, and we are trucking our trash to Virginia and Pennsylvania," he explains. "That is costing the city $400 million a year. We could put seven or eight of these converters in the city, and that would be enough." [...] But the decision-making bureaucracy can be slow, and it is hamstrung by the politically well-connected waste-disposal industry. "Many landfill operators are used to getting a million dollars a month out of debris," says U.S. Energy's Paul Marazzo. "They don't want a converter to happen because they'll lose their revenue."

(By "the politically well-connected waste-disposal industry" I'm pretty sure they mean Tony Soprano.)

Researchers convert heat to electricity using organic molecules, could lead to new energy source

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have successfully generated electricity from heat by trapping organic molecules between metal nanoparticles, an achievement that could pave the way toward the development of a new source for energy.

The discovery is a milestone in the quest for efficient ways to directly convert heat into electricity. [...] "Generating 1 watt of power requires about 3 watts of heat input and involves dumping into the environment the equivalent of about 2 watts of power in the form of heat. If even a fraction of the lost heat can be converted into electricity in a cost-effective manner, the impact it would have on energy can be enormous, amounting to massive savings of fuel and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions."



35 Responses:

  1. 4zumanga says:

    It doesn't violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics because you have to keep feeding it garbage. Really this is just a very modern and cool way of dealing with garbage by burning it :)

    • jabberwokky says:

      Probably only certain mixes of garbage. I wonder if they have to sort out certain refuse that isn't as high energy (for instance, if they sent the glass back through).

      Damn nifty article.

  2. strspn says:

    Chlorine gas ends up in the output, if there's any plastic or other similar organics in the input. And lot of carbon monoxide, which doesn't burn further.

    • wikkit42 says:

      Carbon monoxide burns fine; it can be combusted to carbon dioxide. It's also useful in a large array of chemical synthesis processes, including making methanol, acetic acid, and precursors for detergents.

  3. jwm says:

    To put me at ease, Longo calls in David Lynch, who manages the demonstration facility.

    They sure have themselves a strange notion of `ease' in the garbage industry.

  4. carbonunit says:

    It wouldn't break the second law, because the energy was already in the fuel. It sounds like a high-tech, super efficient version of a trash fire.

  5. zarex says:

    The whole thing sounds like garbage to me. Yes, you can excite the combustion of trash using plasma arcs, but making these sorts of claims requires some pretty hefty evidence.

    Then there's this:

    But the decision-making bureaucracy can be slow, and it is hamstrung by the politically well-connected waste-disposal industry.

    It's a sure sign of a scam when an inventor claims that there's a conspiracy keeping their invention down. Total BS.

    • lovingboth says:

      And this:

      The system is capable of breaking down pretty much anything except nuclear waste, the isotopes of which are indestructible.

      • mackys says:

        Yeah, I was gonna say:

        "So, we can shove all those twisted steel i-beams from ground zero into the thing and make energy?"

      • giantlaser says:

        Plasma arcs shatter molecules, which is a simple chemical/energy process. They don't shatter atoms, which is nuclear fission. Well, they could, but that's not the point.

        The system is capable of breaking down any molecule into elements. You are still going to get dangerous elements if they existed as part of the input trash - such as chlorine, fluorine, and also radioactives. But handling those is still a lot better than handling dangerous hydrocarbon, chains, chlorine compounds, etc.

        I imagine a future where we burn all the trash, using it to generate power. 50 years later, so much of our power needs are met by trash that we have demands to keep waste production high.

    • carus_erus says:

      A simple way to test it: Set up an alternative garbage dump where you take garbage for free, and see if you turn a profit.

      • zarex says:

        Yep. Let's see if they actually do that, or continue to search for grants and investors perpetually.

        • spoonyfork says:

          Indeed. A chance to make millions with just a business plan and an "alternative" yet thousands year old energy technology. Are dotcom booms cyclical now?

  6. knowbuddy says:

    There are at least some people that believe the garbage incinerators are a very bad hoax:

  7. mikesol says:

    For a long time, I've been telling people that if they want to make a killer speculative purchase of some real estate, a former landfill site would be it.

    See, it won't be too long before we have nanomachines that are sufficient to dig into a pile of garbage with orders to retrieve amounts of specific materials and return them for collection. What better source of material than a dump? Every possible useful element and compound is going to be in there somewhere, and if you pump enough nanomachines in finding what you want is going to be easy.

    • pozorvlak says:

      That's the good scenario, certainly... but whether the actual digging is done by nanobots or ragged, starving children, I reckon that landfill mining is going to be a major economic activity of the late 21st/early 22nd century, and possibly even sooner.

      • eqe says:

        nanobots or ragged, starving children

        I read that and my first thought is, "well, what's the difference really?"

        • pozorvlak says:

          Children have lower up-front costs, but higher running costs. Of course, if these are ragged, starving children in a Grim Meathook Future scenario, we can probably ignore the running costs.

          • scar_crow says:

            Starving children would be a way to sort out materials that dont give you a good energy output when burned.

            And with this plasma machine, when the children die off, you can just throw them in the plasma arc and fuel our Play Station 124's... that will run pre-apocolyptic utopian scenarios that include VR fishing games using the most up to date renderings of what fish actually looked like.

    • zarex says:

      Maybe, but not many people are willing to wait ~50-100 years for even a possible return on investment.

  8. fantasygoat says:

    There has to be a catch. There's always a catch.

    • kfringe says:

      You have to feed at least two newborn babies per day into the magic box to satisfy the mystical requirements. It's not a problem. It's hardly even an issue.

  9. g_na says:

    Hmm, it says, "The only by-products are an obsidian-like glass and...a mixture of primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide". I wonder if that's completely true, or if there are any other emissions like CO2 or other greenhouse gases. If not, that can be a big step towards reducing global warming.

    See also Changing World Technologies, a company that takes slaughterhouse waste, among other things, and turns it into usable oil. (Although the US, in all its infinite wisdom, may be chasing this company away.)

  10. jakenelson says:

    This sort of thing isn't all that new: high-temperature, high-efficiency, better-contained incinerator/generators have been done. The main reason that they haven't been built is that the companies who build garbage incinerators don't think it's worth spending 100 times as much on something with a tenth the capacity of their existing "dirty blast furnace" models, largely because they're looking at it from a "trash gotten rid of over time" perspective instead of "energy gained per unit of trash" or "not pouring out shitloads of pollution".

    The article reads like one too many PR people or journalists got a hold of it, though... 'indestructible' nuclear waste and all.

  11. nightrider says:

    Next thing you know they'll be giving rat's milk to school children.

    "I don't get it... everyone loves rats, but they don't want to drink the rats' milk?"

  12. prof_null says:

    Hang on, if you don't want stuff like chlorine gas and other nasty non-organic elements in the exhaust e.g. sulphur, you are going to need to carefully filter the stuff you put into it. That's going to cost for starters. And the more heavier elements you put in the more energy it will take to "process" them - or is this "magical" plasma going to reduce actual elements to other elements in some alchemical process? This really is advertising, right? Pass me the athanor, Igor . . . .. . .

    • scar_crow says:

      That is what I was thinking. If this idea were actually to work, you would need a filtering process... perhaps attached to a recycling center (so that you dont wind up wiping out the worlds supply of tin to power our video games and such) that would also have to sort out "bad waste."

      • jwz says:

        The article says that while some plasma plants require pre-sorting, this one doesn't.

        Whether that claim is true is certainly debatable, but it does help to actually read the article instead of just the pull quote.

        • scar_crow says:

          Oh, I read all of it. What I am saying is that this is likely bullshit. But if the idea were to work, it would need to be presorted.

          Thanks for your presumption though.

    • treptoplax says:

      Don't forget the mercury in all those CFL bulbs that'll end up in the trash! (What's a little heavy-metal poisoning when we're curing GLOBAL WARMING?)

      • prof_null says:

        Yeah, right on, and there are more things like that too . . .
        you know this got me thinking . . we really should have some sort of universal recycling code like a barcode or something on these products that could be indexed to web pages that tell people what's in the product and where to send it for recycling, etc. etc. - oh, that's right. Companies don't want to recycle their own products it's supposedly not profitable enough. Chalk it up to the flush-button mentality of our modern age. (sigh)