There is value in trash — if you can unlock it:
That’s what this facility in northern Oregon is designed to do. Run by a startup called S4 Energy Solutions, it’s the first commercial plant in the US to use plasma gasification to convert municipal household garbage into gas products like hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can in turn be burned as fuel or sold to industry for other applications. (Hydrogen, for example, is used to make ammonia and fertilizers.)
Here’s how it works: The household waste delivered into this hangar will get shredded, then travel via conveyer to the top of a large tank. From there it falls into a furnace that’s heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and mixes with oxygen and steam. The resulting chemical reaction vaporizes 75 to 85 percent of the waste, transforming it into a blend of gases known as syngas (so called because they can be used to create synthetic natural gas). The syngas is piped out of the system and segregated. The remaining substances, still chemically intact, descend into a second vessel that’s roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
This cauldron makes the one above sound lukewarm by comparison. Inside, two electrodes aimed toward the middle of the vessel create an electric arc that, at 18,000 degrees, is almost as hot as lightning. This intense, sustained energy becomes so hot that it transforms materials into their constituent atomic elements. The reactions take place at more than 2,700 degrees, which means this isn’t incineration—this is emission-free molecular deconstruction. (The small amount of waste material that survives falls to the bottom of the chamber, where it’s trapped in molten glass that later hardens into inert blocks.)
The seemingly sci-fi transformation occurs because the trash is blasted apart by plasma—the forgotten-stepsister state of matter. Plasma is like gas in that you can’t grip or pour it. But because extreme heat ionizes some atoms (adding or subtracting electrons), causing conductivity, it behaves in ways that are distinct from gas.