One of the worst environmental plagues of recent years is asbestos fireproofing in high rises, schools, and other buildings. Cleaning up the contamination isn't easy: handling the cancer-causing microfibers requires extra precautions, and asbestos waste must be buried in special landfills. However, researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology are taking a different approach. They have used an electric plasma-arc torch to melt pure asbestos into a harmless, glassy material.
Plasma-arc technology--which uses a stream of ionized gas--works at much higher temperatures than conventional furnaces and has been used mainly in metal processing. The Georgia Tech team's next experiments will be on debris laden with asbestos, nails, and other construction materials. Researchers envision mobile plasma-arc units that could be hauled to cleanup sites. Once the asbestos is melted, they say, the glassy residue could be used as construction material.