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Trash Talks Continue for High-Tech Plasma Plant

February 19, 2007

O'Malley, Chris

An Illinois firm wants to destroy Indianapolis trash with a device more fearsome than Marvin the Martian's ACME disintegration pistol.

Northbrook-based PEAT International Inc. would argue its 1,500-degree "plasma arc" treatment device, in which "molecules are disassociated into their basic elemental atomic constituents," is anything but Looney Tunes, however.

PEAT, which already operates plasma plants to destroy solid waste in Taiwan, confirms that it is looking at building a plant locally.

"We are still interested in the Indianapolis area. We're in negotiations on a piece of land," said Daniel Ripes, a spokesman for PEAT.

He declined to elaborate.

Such systems are already being developed for use on naval ships and submarines as an environmentally friendly alternative to dumping large amounts of trash overboard. Ripes said plasma-arc disposal plants typically employ 25 to 30 people.

PEAT "is undergoing the initial phases of property acquisition, zoning approval, and solid-waste siting approval for a facility [in Indianapolis]. This facility would be the first commercial plasma waste destruction facility in the United States and is scheduled to open during the fourth quarter of 2007," wrote one of PEAT's consultants last September, in a letter to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

An IDEM spokeswoman said the agency is familiar with PEAT's interest in Indianapolis but that the company had not yet filed a permit application.

PEAT's consultant has been testifying before the Indiana Solid Waste Management Board, which is clarifying what types of new solid waste processing technologies need to be permitted.

Plasma torches aren't a new concept. Back in the 1960s, NASA and the Russian space agency used them to test the effectiveness of heat shields that protect spacecraft re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

In a nutshell, ionized gas that conducts electricity is passed between electrodes, generating an intense electrical field. Temperatures can reach 2,000 degrees.

Organic molecules break down, leaving gases such as hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. Inorganic molecules wind up as a glassy slag that can be used for pavement.

Proponents of plasma-arc waste processing claim there's virtually no pollution from the process. Some argue that the verdict is still out.

The facilities can use large amounts of electricity to generate the plasma torch. But the gas generated by the process can help such a plant sustain itself, said Don E. Hawkins, former chairman and CEO of Hawkins Industries Inc. Hawkins had hoped to have a plasma-arc disposal system of his own up and running by 2001 on a 10-acre site in Pike Township.

His 35,000-square-foot facility would have targeted potential customers ranging from hospitals to drugmakers to waste haulers. It would have used PEAT's technology to process up to 36 tons of waste per day.

Hawkins said he received a city air permit and zoning approval and a state solid waste permit, and even won over a local homeowner's association.

But after spending $750,000 over several years of development, "I ended up going out of business."

The problem, he says, was that the technology was too green at the time to win over investors.

"We couldn't raise the $17 million to build it. ... Now that the technology is more proven, I wouldn't have had the problems I had before," he figures.

Last summer, PEAT officials contacted Hawkins and an associate on the project, saying they wanted to explore Indianapolis again after setting up plants in Asia. "Apparently, someone at [IDEM] told them it could speed things along if they started from where we left off a few years ago because they liked the way we handled the permitting process," said Hawkins, who added that the 10-acre site on which he once had an option in Pike Township is still available, near a recycling center in the 96th Street area.

Cooking With Plasma

The basics:

  • Waste is fed into a reactor and blasted with electrically charged gas at about 1,500 degrees, which separates organic and inorganic waste.
  • Organic waste forms synthetic gas-mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide-when injected with pure oxygen or steam.
  • Inorganic waste melts into silicate slag.
  • Gases are cleaned and used as fuel.
  • Slag can be used for road or construction material.
  • Metals present can be sold to refiners or as scrap.

Source: PEAT International