During the Star Wars era, U.S. and Soviet scientists separately worked on a technology known as pulsed power that would allow weapons to store up energy and then discharge it in intense, microsecond bursts. Now, pulsed power has a more down-to-earth use: Scientific Utilization Inc. in Decatur, Ala., is developing a Russian-invented system that removes water from sewage sludge and kills pathogens in water. This fall, the system will be tested as an enhancement for smokestack electrostatic precipitators, and it may eventually be used to destroy chemical weapons. To dewater sludge, a brief, intense electric arc creates a shock wave in the liquid that causes suspended particles to form clumps.
The system is based on an invention by Igor Grekhov, a director of A.F. Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg. It delivers more power and lasts longer than any American device, says Stephen Levy, a project director for the Tennessee Valley Authority and a former head of the U.S. Army's pulsed-power program.