Sustainable Energy

Garbage Power

Plasma turns waste to ethanol.

Forget corn-derived biofuels. Think garbage. The process shown here uses lightning-like arcs of plasma to transform garbage and other waste into gases from which methanol and etha­nol can be made. Unlike conventional incineration, it doesn’t generate toxic pollutants, and it yields up to six times as much energy as it consumes. Since its fuel–garbage–would be brought to a landfill or incinerator anyway, the technique would avoid the extra energy costs associated with growing and processing corn. The technology, based on research at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and the Pacific Northwest National Lab in Richland, WA, is now being commercialized by Integrated Environmental Technologies (IET), also in Richland. There’s enough energy in U.S. munici­pal and other waste to replace as much as a quarter of the gasoline the country uses, says ­Daniel Cohn, cofounder of IET and senior research scientist at the MIT center. IET is in talks with a utility and several municipalities to construct the first such plants, says CEO Jeff Surma.

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