Plasma gasification technology is when fuel or waste is fed into a machine and exposed to electrically made plasma that is 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit (20,000 degrees Celsius). The fuel or waste is heated to a temperature that causes the organic compounds to break down into very simple molecules like hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and water vapor.
Many companies are selling this technology, although one company claims to have invented the most efficient process in the sector. Integrated Environmental Technologies (IET) has developed and patented a process, called the Plasma Enhanced Melter (PEM), that can turn carbonaceous waste material into products like 100% recyclable glass and an energy-rich gas that can be used to make electricity. The PEM can process materials like municipal waste, incinerator ash, electronics, and even radioactive waste. In fact, IET is still searching for a material that the PEM can't safely process.
What about emissions? I asked IET's President and CEO, Jeff Surma, for details. In an email exchange, Surma wrote that the PEM's emissions depend on the waste being processed and the resulting product. For example, the PEM can convert municipal solid waste into liquid methanol (a major component of biodiesel) and glass. Another variation of the PEM involves selling the waste's gas to an electric power plant. Surma noted that although there are emissions from the power plant, "since the [PEM] gas is sold and the burning of natural gas is avoided, [there is] a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions to the environment."
IET does most of its business overseas, particularly in Asia. Surma explained that Asian island nations like Japan have been early adopters of the technology because of dense populations and limited room for landfills. It doesn't have a wealth of natural energy resources like the U.S., but there is a very conscious effort to move away from an over-dependence on foreign sources of energy. This makes renewable energy technology like IET's very economical.
So why is the United States, with all the talk of "energy independence" and some of the biggest garbage generators in the world, not jumping on this technology? Surma wrote that the U.S. still has "an attitude of not wanting to be the first to try a new technology." Burying waste in landfills may be cheaper right now, but using that waste to make energy makes more economic sense long-term and decreases our over-dependence on fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. The high cost of oil and natural gas has alleviated this short-sightedness a bit, but Surma still believes "the real barrier to [market] entry is the resistance to change if the alternative may have a higher perceived cost."
So will it take $7 a gallon gas and skyrocketing natural gas prices to wake up our elected officials? What will it take to move us strategically and with a sense of urgency to large, meaningful amounts of clean energy technology? It's time for American innovation to serve Americans, too.