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Torch It

I expected this article on energy from waste to be a rehash of the “oil from waste” hype from last year.

Not at all. This technology involves dissociating the waste material via “plasma torch” (by which I take it they mean “turning it into a plasma” rather than hitting it with a flame as the term suggests), and capturing the released hydrogen and other materials for reuse. In particular, the hydrogen extracted from the waste material is expected to be a significant source of hydrogen for the long-anticipated hydrogen fuel-cell cars of the future.

I’m still a bit skeptical about this technology being used as an energy source. While not touting it as a panacea, the article does handwave a bit on thermodynamics:

Some argue that using the torch requires almost as much energy as it produces. Startech’s Chief Operating Officer Joseph Longo, however, said the system can produce three to four times as much energy in carbon-rich gas, and 50% more energy than it uses in the form of hydrogen gas.

That makes the technology, along with nuclear, wind and solar power, an alternative to fossil fuels like coal to build a hydrogen supply, said DOE’s Russomanno.

“Will it significantly meet the needs of the U.S. for hydrogen? It will be one technology of many,” he says.

I’m not convinced that this process will yield the net energy surplus that those interviewed claim, but then, it doesn’t really need to. Even if it breaks even or is slightly on the consumption side, it still sounds like a useful development simply for getting rid of waste in a productive fashion — the ultimate in recycling. The article hints at this (that the recycling aspect makes it worthwhile, energy surplus or no), but doesn’t quite nail that point.

I’ve long thought that landfills should be thought of as storage rather than disposal sites, as someone will eventually realize what a treasure chest of materials are heaped up in them and invent a way to extract useful materials from the waste. If this technology pans out (and the number of big-name companies involved with it around the world is a promising sign that it may), the giant, mastaba-like hills dotting the rural landscape may eventually disappear.

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