Taking the human element out of recycling

The Global Energy Prize Russian Laureate, Philipp Rutberg, may be responsible for accomplishing what decades of public awareness campaigns could not - full recycling of communities’ waste streams.

It has often been said that improving the standard of living of everyone on the planet to the level in the most advanced consumer societies would require two or three earths in order to provide sufficient raw materials. Philipp Rutberg has demonstrated that this is simply untrue.

The problem with the way resources are used in developed countries is that they are thoughtlessly discarded after use. Even where recycling programs are in place, very little waste gets recycled, partly due to limitations of the recycling technologies and infrastructure and partly due to the fact that separating the recyclables depends on people’s behavior. Citizens are encouraged to separate their glass, plastic, cans and paper from the rest of their trash and put it in separate bins. An entire recycling infrastructure has to be created to deal with it, consisting of containers for every residence and special trucks to haul it away.

But this type of system presupposes that everyone will go through the trouble to sort out their trash. That requires a conscientious effort to do so, plus separate containers in every kitchen. The fact of the matter is that many people are either moderately consistent with this or simply ignore recycling completely. And when you think about what gets recycled most—glass containers—it seems like the emphasis is all wrong. Glass is made from the most abundant mineral element in the earth’s crust, and when simply buried it is essentially inert.

What is needed is a way of recycling everything, and doing so without relying on human behavior to sort it all out. As long as we rely on piecemeal recycling technology and the virtue of people, we will be sorely disappointed in the result. Philipp Rutberg has managed to surmount this problem with a new technology called plasma converters, sometimes called plasma recyclers or reactors. Philipp has managed to devise some very efficient plasma systems that promise to outperform the best of those now available.

Plasma is considered the fourth state of matter, the other three being the more commonly recognized solid, liquid, and gas. When you heat a solid, you get a liquid (in most cases). When you heat a liquid, you get a gas. When you heat a gas, you get plasma. A thermal plasma is an ionized gas that becomes both an effective conductor of electricity and also incredibly hot. We’re talking about almost 17,000°C. That’s a few times hotter than the surface of the sun. Plasma torches have been used for various industrial purposes for years. If you want to cut a twelve-inch-thick piece of steel, you’ll want one. They are sometimes referred to as lightning on a stick.

The happy marriage of plasma and garbage promises to make landfills and incinerators mere relics of a bygone age. But eliminating garbage isn’t the only purpose of a plasma converter. Unlike incineration, a plasma converter is actually a recycling device par excellence.

Instead of a garbage truck dumping its contents into a landfill, in a more sensible world it will dump it into a giant hopper, from where it will drop through a massive shredder, if necessary, to break its contents down into a reasonable size for a plasma converter to digest. The garbage mélange is then fed into a chamber where the plasma can work its magic. The intense energy transfer that occurs in the plasma is sufficient to rip the molecular bonds asunder, reducing the components of the garbage into their constituent elements. The resulting products exit the plasma chamber as a gas and a very hot molten stream.

The gas that is thus formed is usually referred to as “synthesis gas,” or syngas. Its main constituents are hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Syngas is a very useful substance, for it contains all the building blocks of hydrocarbons, from which we derive the myriad petroleum-based products we use every day: fuel, plastics, lubricants, etc. Many people are familiar with synthetic motor oil, which is one of the many products made from syngas today. It is far superior to petroleum-derived motor oil.

When syngas exits the plasma chamber it is understandably very hot (about 1,200°C), and by running it through a cooler a great deal of steam can be generated that can be used to drive a turbine to produce electricity. But of course that leaves us with the syngas itself. It can be burned immediately through a steam or gas turbine to provide substantially more electricity. About 20-25 per cent of this total amount of electricity can be channeled back to run the plasma torches and the plant, while the remaining power can be fed into the grid for sale. Thus a plasma converter for unwanted garbage can become a significant player in the electricity market, particularly in areas where electricity is very expensive such as islands—where garbage disposal is also a problem that would be solved in the bargain.

In locations where electricity is relatively cheap, syngas can more profitably be transformed into liquid fuels, everything from methanol or ethanol to jet fuel or even gasoline. Or it can be used to make tires, plastics, or anything currently made from petroleum. Butanol is a liquid fuel that holds tremendous promise. Virgin Fuels is Sir Richard Branson’s research project to find a way to power jet aircraft with biofuels. Butanol, a 4-carbon alcohol, is one of the prime prospects. A liquid fuel with an energy density nearly identical to gasoline, butanol can be mixed at an 85 per cent butanol/15 per cent gasoline ratio that will burn in most cars without any modifications to their ignition system. In fact, many older cars can run unmodified on 100 per cent butanol.

With all the uses to which syngas can be put, let’s not forget there’s also the molten waste stream emanating from the plasma chamber. This can be used in a variety of ways, and like syngas it will contribute to the profitability of the plasma plant. From the molten state it can be spun directly into rock wool, a substance rather like fiberglass that can be used in much the same way. Since rock wool made in this manner would be considerably less expensive than fiberglass, much more insulation can be added to a structure for the same cost as fiberglass, reducing the energy demands of cooling and heating. Compared to the cost of making rock wool the old-fashioned way, spinning it out of the molten slag stream of a plasma converter will cost about one-tenth of the price.

If the molten slag stream is water cooled, nodules of mixed metals can be recovered. These can be sent to metal refineries and effectively “mined” for their component elements. Thus not only iron, aluminum, and other useful metals can be recovered, but heavy metals from the waste stream that have been such a problem with current methods of waste disposal can also be isolated for reuse. The slag that’s left will be comprised mainly of silicates and other minerals, which can be used for tiles, bricks, roadbeds, etc. Like regular glass, it is virtually inert. Any materials embedded in it are basically entombed, so nothing of any consequence will leach out into the environment.

The deployment of plasma recycling systems will have a transformative effect on the world, for it will make garbage a very profitable business. Many developing countries have virtually no garbage collection infrastructure, and as a result are virtually buried in discarded plastic and other materials. Much of that floating waste ends up in river systems and ultimately finds its way into the ocean, where it drifts on the currents and eventually ends up in the center of the great ocean gyres. There is an area in the north Pacific that is almost a million and a half square kilometers where such garbage eventually ends up.

When President Medvedev presented Dr. Rutberg with his award in June at the St. Petersburg ceremony, the Energy Prize laureate gave a short acceptance speech in which he proposed an intriguing idea: Put plasma converters onto ships and figure out ways to collect that garbage from the Pacific gyre. It could be readily transformed at sea into liquid fuels, stored in the holds of such a converted tanker, and ultimately brought to shore and sold.

President Medvedev immediately grasped the potential of this idea, and to everyone’s surprise he took the microphone at the end of the awards ceremony to assure Dr. Rutberg that he would have his personal support to make sure the laureate can obtain the funding to pursue the ocean cleanup project. This would position Russia at the forefront of this environmentally sensitive issue and almost certainly inspire a new level of international cooperation to deal with this difficult dilemma.

But more than that, Dr. Rutberg’s technology will go to the root cause of the problem, the river systems from which most of the trash originates. By making garbage collection and recycling a profitable enterprise, plasma converters will ultimately eliminate the source of the plastic and other refuse before it ever enters the ocean. The communities and nations that now contribute to the problem will be enriched at the same time as they implement a solution.

This commentary is part of Eco-Business’ interactive “ask the energy experts” event being held in partnership with the Global Energy Prize. To post your tough questions to Tom and the other panelists, click here.

Tom Blees is an advanced energy systems consultant from California. He is the author of Prescription for the Planet – The Painless Remedy For Our Energy & Environmental Crises. Blees is president of The Science Council for Global Initiatives [www.thesciencecouncil.com], and is a member of the Global Energy Prize selection committee.

About The Global Energy Prize

The Global Energy Prize is one of the world’s most respected awards in energy science, awarding over US$1million every year for outstanding energy achievements and innovations.

Thus far, the Prize has been granted to 24 scientists from around the globe, including past Laureates from the US, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Iceland, Ukraine, Russia, and Japan. The President of the Russian Federation participates in each year’s award ceremony held at the conclusion of a week-long celebration of the awardees’ work, Laureates’ Week.  Other world leaders who have supported the prize include the former US President George W. Bush, former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, former French President Jacques Chirac and current Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

The Global Energy Prize rewards innovation and solutions in global energy research and its concurrent environmental challenges. The degree to which a development contributes to the benefit of humanity is a key driver in deciding the recipient of the Prize.

To join the debate, click here.

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