San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Beam This Trash Away

Beam us up, Franklin Chang.

OK, the Star Trek trick of instantaneously transporting people from one place to another does not yet exist, but the former astronaut and celebrity science entrepreneur believes the world is on the brink of making landfills and incinerators disappear and turning trash into treasure.

Chang’s Ad Astra Rocket company is hoping to use plasma, the fourth state of matter, to get rid of trash and potentially convert it into commodities, such as hydrogen, ethanol, methanol and synthesis gas, or “syngas.”

Ad Astra’s main focus is on developing a plasma-based rocket, the “Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket,” for future missions to the moon and Mars. It has a prototype rocket due to be finished this year and it hopes to be space-bourne by 2012.

The company, created in 2006 and headquartered in the northwestern Guancaste capital of Liberia, wants to purchase a patented “Plasma Enhanced Melter System” from the Integrated Environmental Technologies (IET) company based in the U.S. city of Hanford, Washington.

The system is a combination ovenelectrical circuit, which uses two electrodes to generate a high-energy arc of electricity within a sealed container to superheat trash, converting it into plasma, potentially separating out hydrogen and other byproducts, such as silicate glass, which could be used in construction and roadwork.

“You can put anything through the arc, and it creates a soup of atoms – hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen,” said Ronald Chang, Franklin’s brother, who is spearheading the trash conversion effort.

“It’s like creating a little volcano,” he explained. “If we test it, and it works, it will revolutionize garbage and we can move into municipal waste, which is a really significant problem right now.”

IET cofounder and board member Dan Cohn said he estimates his company’s machines reduce trash to 5 percent of its initial volume.

“We came to see this technology as a major improvement over landfilling and incineration,” he said.

IET, created in 1995, received its patent for the plasma melter after Cohn, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), completed three years of research, paid for in part by a roughly $300 million U.S. Department of Energy research-and-development contract. The study focused on finding ways to get rid of radioactive waste in environmentally friendly ways. Although results didn’t show success in that area, they did indicate potential with nonradioactive trash.

“(IET) was a spin-off from research I did at MIT,” Cohn said. “We got interested in plasma and we think it can make a real difference.”

To go forward with the project here, Ad Astra is seeking an agreement with Costa Rica’s Social Security System, known as the Caja, to pay the company to take the country’s hospital waste. They will also need permits with the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA).

The trick for the Chang brothers, said Ronald Chang, is to make an offer to the Caja to take their trash for less than or equal to what the agency already pays to get rid of its refuse. Ronald Chang estimates that if he nails down a contract with the Caja, the project could generate one megawatt of electricity for every 16 tons of medical waste converted into plasma.

By comparison, Costa Rica’s electricityproducing capacity is currently about 570 megawatts.

But Chang said everything’s still in the preliminary stages here and there is much work to be done before there is an energy guarantee.

“We don’t want to become energy producers just yet – first we just want to get rid of the waste,” Chang said. “We don’t want to promise anything yet. If we can get rid of the trash, all the rest will be gravy.”

Chang said the company is facing numerous logistical and technical hurdles.

“It’s really expensive to create plasma and it’s not foolproof. We need to increase our understanding of the process, and there is still a lot of debugging going on. The challenge is generating enough heat to ensure the conversion to plasma.”

Despite Chang’s cautionary rhetoric, early indications from the technology have been encouraging. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EnvironmentalTechnologyEvaluationCenter gave the technology the thumbs up in a 2002 review, citing the lack of dangerous chemical emissions and the creation of syngas.

According to IET, other companies have already purchased Plasma Enhanced Melter Systems and used them successfully, including: Hitachi Zosen Corp. in Japan to dispose of medical waste, Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan to destroy polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos, Global Plasma in Taiwan to produce syngas and Dow- Corning in the U.S. to convert hazardous waste into hydrochloric acid.

If Ad Astra secures the Caja deal and purchases a machine, the first goal will be just to get rid of the trash, Chang says. The second will be to try to turn it into commodities, such as hydrogen that can be sold for a profit. Hydrogen currently sells at $2,000 per kilogram.

“We could sell the hydrogen or just burn it to generate fuel,” Chang said.

If the process works, it could be used, for example, to convert drugs seized by law enforcement into useful commodities, he said.

Chang said that because of the cuttingedge nature of the technology, the public is often confused about the project.

“Just six months ago, we had a Health Ministry official come in and ask us where we were getting our blood plasma from,” he said, laughing. “It’s not that kind of plasma.”

What is Plasma?

Plasma, first discovered in 1879, is the most common state of matter in the universe. Other states of matter are solid, liquid and gas. Stars are made of plasma, which is basically superheated (around 1,200 degrees Celsius) molecules that break up into atoms and ionized gas.

“Plasma is what happens to anything you heat up to a high temperature. It’s just a name you give to really hot stuff,” said Ad Astra’s Executive Director Ronald Chang.

Superheating trash to turn it into synthesis gas is not new, Chang says, and was first used by Nazi Germany near the end of World War II to generate fuel for its military forces.


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