Zapping Waste With Super Incinerators

IMAGINE A FORCE SO POWERFUL THAT IT transforms waste to burnable fuel and precious metals. Actually, it exists. It's a superhot state of matter called plasma, which occurs in nature when lightning passes through the air. Engineers create plasma in factories by superheating gas and use it to manipulate metals and ceramics. Now, Plasma Energy Applied Technology Inc. (PEAT), located in Huntsville, Ala., intends to commercialize the technology in a waste-management system.

The principle is simple: When a gas is transformed into plasma at a fiery 12,000F and is trained on a target, the material decomposes through a process called pyrolysis. The process requires little oxygen and produces less air pollution than typical incinerators. Trained on organic wastes, PEAT's plasma systems generate hydrogen gas. They can also retrieve any precious metals present in the waste stream. In theory, such systems can zap everything, from thermal batteries used to trigger bombs to asbestos and sludge.

Other companies, including Westinghouse Electric Corp., have studied plasma waste disposal. But it requires a great deal of electricity, which makes it more expensive than incinerators or landfills. Still, because the process is clean, San Diego city regulators have agreed to let PEAT build a trial disposal plant for dangerous medical waste.

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