Geoplasma, Plasma Reformation, and Nearly Perfect Recycling

So much for trash.  Plasma conversion is finally coming to the US, according to a story in USA Today.  Why is this worth noting?  Plasma conversion is as close toperfect recycling as we are going to get, at least for the time being.

I looked into this topic extensively a few years ago while working for a consulting firm.  One of our clients was a major auto manufacturer -- to remain nameless -- and I tried to convince the company that their future business model was not exclusively in producing autos, but rather, because of the complexity of introducing new technology and new fuels, in providing "transportation solutions", including hydrogen fuel.  They preferred to keep building petro-powered SUVs.  Perhaps it's time to reconsider that decision.

There's no magic in plasma conversion -- municipal garbage is obviously high in energy.  It is burned rather than stored in many locations.  But plasma reformation is much cleaner than simple incineration.  Trash goes in, and, depending on its composition and energy content, electricity, refined metals, and purified gases come out.  There's no snake oil here; the physics and chemistry work.  The only waste product from reformation consists of silicates, which so far can only be used for building roads and as abrasives for grinding wheels.  The volume of waste, including CO2,  is also much smaller compared to incineration since all the good stuff is reused.

As far as I can tell from the USA Today story, with its limited technical information and references to plasma conversion facilities up and running in Japan, Geoplasma is licensing technology from Startech Environmental Corp for a plant to be built in St. Lucie County, Florida.  Just guessing, though.  Presently, the Geoplasma website consists only of a long video clip that I didn't bother to watch.

(UPDATE - 22 Sept 06 :: Crinu Baila, a Senior VP at Geoplasma, wrote to tell me the following:

Westinghouse Plasma Corporation (WPC) plasma arc technology will be utilized in the Florida project.

WPC’s plasma arc units are reliable, rugged and have amassed close to 500,000 hours of operation in industrial environments.

In addition WPC has coupled the plasma arc units with a robust Plasma Gasification Vessel (PGV) that has the proven capability to process a wide variety of waste materials.

The combined plasma units/PGVs have been used in three commercial applications in Japan.

I don't know if the recycling capabilities I mention in this post are as easy with the WPC units as with the Startech plasma converters, but getting this technology into the market is progress, nonetheless.)

They economics of plasma conversion are compelling.  Getting rid of trash is expensive.  New York City spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million a year exporting its garbage, depending on how you count it up.  The combination of plasma conversion and hydrogen production is especially interesting if you consider the applications to distributed hydrogen production to fuel vehicles.  Here are tidbits from a report I wrote some years ago:

Hydrogen fuel cell powered automobiles are expected to enter production by 2010.  While engineering and production issues associated with the new technology will by definition be solved by the date of introduction, hydrogen fuel itself may not be easy to come by, perhaps limiting sales.  Development of a centralized hydrogen production and distribution capability analogous to today’s petroleum infrastructure would no doubt be extraordinarily expensive, but this investment may not be necessary.   Hydrogen locked up in municipal waste streams can be locally harvested in a distributed system for both stationary and automotive fuel cell use.

A Plasma Converter and gas purifier system from Startech Environmental can produce ~43 liters of hydrogen for each kilogram of municipal trash with a net surplus of energy.  New York City exports ~5.5 million kg (12,000 tons) of trash a day at an annual cost approaching $500 million dollars.  Three years worth of this export cost could be used to purchase sufficient plasma conversion infrastructure to fuel several hundred thousand cars per day from NYC’s trash.  Introduction of this technology could be aided by focusing on fleet operation such as taxicabs, police vehicles, buses, or the military.  Similar opportunities are present in other metropolitan areas, and markets, beyond NYC and will provide a short cut to providing hydrogen for fuel cell powered automobiles.

Yeah, yeah -- I know, switching over to the hydrogen economy is going to be expensive and take forever.  But not if you pick your battles:

There is a popular argument among detractors of hydrogen as a fuel that the expense of developing infrastructure for the hydrogen economy is prohibitive.  They insist that because hydrogen production and pumping stations will cost many billions of dollars to build, whatever the actual need, the realization of a hydrogen economy is far in the future.  So far in the future, so the argument goes, that we need not plan for such an eventuality at all.

The most significant error in this argument is its root premise, that a hydrogen economy is somehow foreign, unfamiliar, and ultimately too expensive.  Quite the contrary, we do not need to develop a hydrogen economy because we already have one.  The challenge is not to build a hydrogen infrastructure from scratch but to better harvest widely distributed energy and hydrogen that we now treat as waste.

A majority of industrial processes in the current economy work by shuttling hydrogen atoms amongst other molecules.  The most obvious of these processes is the burning of hydrocarbons, either for transportation or for the manufacture of other goods, where energy stored in the hydrocarbons is essentially transferred to the finished article or substance.  As a result, many manufactured products contain high energy chemical bonds, and many of those products are thrown out as whole objects.  The stored energy is thus also thrown away.  This trash is highly distributed and its conversion from valued good to waste is most concentrated near population centers.  Considerable further resources are then expended in transporting the waste elsewhere.

According to the New York City municipal budget, for example, the City spends ~$300 million per year to transport ~12,500 tons (5.7 million kg) of municipal waste a day to distant sites (this is in addition to the cost of local waste collection and transfer).  The City’s businesses generate an equivalent daily amount, which is collected by private companies.  This brings the total daily trash output of NYC to approximately 25,000 tons.  The City spends another ~$20 million a year for local “landfill monitoring and leachate control.”  The Economist estimates the total cost of exporting the City’s trash at closer to half a billion dollars a year.  There is clearly an economic opportunity if alternative disposal means can be found.

Even if you ignore the sale of recycled metals and gases, there is significant opportunity in providing fleet vehicles and hydrogen fuel for those vehicles;

“Plasma Conversion” is a process developed by Startech Environmental, of Wilton CT, in which plasma at 30,000° F is used to degrade waste, chemical weapons, etc.  The plasma provides an excess of electrons that chemically reduce complex compounds to their constituent elements.  In effect, a Plasma Converter runs backward the chemical reactions that produced the material in the waste.

Municipal waste is sufficiently energy dense to produce more chemical and electrical energy than is used to “convert” the waste.  Thus some of the recovered energy can be used to run the Plasma Converter.  More relevant for the purposes of this report, Startech has refined the process, with the aid of a ceramic filter, to produce ~7 ft3 of hydrogen gas at 99.999% purity from each pound of garbage (~43 L of hydrogen for each kg of trash).  The volume of trash produced by NYC public services could thus be processed to provide ~235 million L of hydrogen a day.  Adding the privately collected waste would double this amount.  Processing municipal waste from other metropolitan areas could reasonably be expected to produce hydrogen volumes in proportion to their population.

Startech is currently advertising units that process between 5 and 100 tons per day, which cost between $2.5 million and $12.5 million respectively.  Thus for the cost of 4 years worth of trash export fees, ~$1.3 billion, the infrastructure could be assembled to process all of New York City’s municipal trash into raw materials.  Pure hydrogen could be separated for use in fuel cells, and other materials sold to industry.  Trash is currently trucked from local pick-up points to several waste transfer stations.  Trash is then packed in sealed trucks for export.  The export step could be eliminated by locating plasma converters at waste transfer stations.  The one time infrastructure cost could be paid up front or amortized, and the operational costs would certainly be less than continuing trash export fees and would be offset by sales of hydrogen and raw materials.  A single technician can run a plasma converter, and with so many units in one place automation could enable one person to shepherd several units.

The utility of this recovered hydrogen can be estimated by calculating how many vehicles it can power.  The 2002 Hydrogen Fuel Cell powered Ford Focus test bed runs at ~100km/hr for approximately 400 km on 1244 L of hydrogen.  Assuming slightly larger average vehicles and consequent lower efficiency, a very conservative estimate is that the daily trash output of NYC could fuel more than 300,000 vehicles a day traveling several hundred kilometers each.  For example, all of the City’s taxicabs and Police cruisers could be run on each day’s supply of hydrogen produced from municipal trash.

If the numbers are so compelling, even just for arbitraging the inefficiency of exporting and caching trash, why isn't this technology popping up all over the U.S.,?  Back in 2003 or so, I had a chat with the CEO of Startech, and their biggest problem was investment in existing infrastructure.  That is, waste management companies, cities, and counties in the U.S., all h ave huge capital investments in garbage gathering, distribution, and disposal, and most of it has yet to be completely amortized.  In order to get into the market, you have to wait for the investment cycle to tick around to the point that equipment and facilities are being replaced.

So, in the end, a battle lost for me.  But only temporarily.  We'll all be mining garbage dumps relatively soon.