Less Toxic Living Through Electricity?

Cleaning up a toxic site full of gasoline, pesticides, or solvents isn't easy, especially if the contaminants are deep in the ground. Battelle Memorial Institute scientists at the Energy Dept.'s Pacific Northwest Lab in Richland, Wash., have developed a way to destroy such organic toxics by zapping the site with electricity.

Engineers run electric current through pipes to heat the ground so that moisture boils into steam that can be drawn up through a separate perforated pipe. Then, gasoline vapors and other volatile toxics can be destroyed above ground using a high-voltage electric field. More stubborn contaminants, Battelle says, can be destroyed directly by raising the voltage to create a plasma or flame underground. Battelle expects the process to be safer, quicker, and cheaper than digging up soil for treatment.