Environment: Incineration & Solid Waste

This article about a new “plasma-arc” incinerator for solid waste caught my eye today. I’d never heard of the technology and boy do the claims sound great!

A Florida county has grand plans to ditch its dump, generate electricity and help build roads — all by vaporizing garbage at temperatures hotter than parts of the sun.

The $425 million facility expected to be built in St. Lucie County will use lightning-like plasma arcs to turn trash into gas and rock-like material. It will be the first such plant in the nation operating on such a massive scale and the largest in the world.

Supporters say the process is cleaner than traditional trash incineration, though skeptics question whether the technology can meet the lofty expectations.

The 100,000-square-foot plant, slated to be operational in two years, is expected to vaporize 3,000 tons of garbage a day. County officials estimate their entire landfill — 4.3 million tons of trash collected since 1978 — will be gone in 18 years.

No byproduct will go unused, according to Geoplasma, the Atlanta-based company building and paying for the plant.

Synthetic, combustible gas produced in the process will be used to run turbines to create about 120 megawatts of electricity that will be sold back to the grid. The facility will operate on about a third of the power it generates, free from outside electricity.

About 80,000 pounds of steam per day will be sold to a neighboring Tropicana Products Inc. facility to power the juice plant’s turbines.

Sludge from the county’s wastewater treatment plant will be vaporized, and a material created from melted organic matter — up to 600 tons a day — will be hardened into slag, and sold for use in road and construction projects.

“This is sustainability in its truest and finest form,” said Hilburn Hillestad, president of Geoplasma, a subsidiary of Jacoby Development Inc.

Vaporizing Land Fill

Of course these are the claims of the developer. What would you expect?

I myself would get in line with the sceptics and ask for substantiation. There must be fabulous amounts of electro-magnetic energy let loose in the process. Will it have no, or minimal effect on the surrounding area? Is the energy cost of trucking in the existing solid waste added into the spreadsheet? Is the pollution of all the trucks? Are the claims of steam, gas, sludge all verifiable?

It’s not that we don’t need to figure out a way to deal with the 4.5 pounds of waste each American produces a day. It’s just that, as they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Personally, if diminishment of consumption were part of the equation I’d be more interested in solutions for dealing with the waste products.

One of the groups cited as critical is The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. Who knew there was such a group? (Isn’t the internet wonderful?) I don’t find any comment on plasma-arc technology but check out their project.

I’ll try to noodle around for more information on the existing, smaller, plants and what some of the R&D universities have to say about this — assuming that the mayhem in the world doesn’t call my attention more strongly over the coming week.

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