Proving Out Plasma Gasification

Researchers believe that the economics are right for using plasma gasification technology to convert municipal solid waste into energy. It's just a matter of getting that first commercial plant built in the United States for it to catch on.
By Bryan Sims
Although recycling and collection strategies have been optimized over time, the rapid accumulation of municipal solid waste (MSW) is stressing landfills and prompting many county and city governments to find new ways to cost-effectively dispose of MSW and offset volatile energy costs. One technology that has garnered attention as a solution to this problem is plasma arc gasification technology.

Plasmas-also known as the fourth state of matter-are gases that have been heated to thAe point of ionization and passed between two electrodes that create an electrical arc.

This arc breaks waste down primarily into elemental gas and solid waste (or slag) in a device called a plasma converter. Charged particles such as electrons conduct electricity and generate heat equivalent to the surface temperature of the sun. The heat rips apart compounds and converts inorganic solids (vitrified ash) into glass-like substances that can be marketed to the construction industry as aggregate for use in blocks, brick, gravel and paper. Meanwhile, the process transforms organic materials into syngas that can be converted into electricity and liquid fuels. The entire conversion process occurs in containment so no emissions are released.

"[Plasma gasification] is finally becoming very cost effective," says Lou Circeo, director of plasma gasification research at Georgia Tech Research Institute. Circeo has been involved with plasma gasification technology for more than 30 years and is considered an expert in the field. He says that one of the key advantages of plasma gasification is the flexibility of feedstock types it can convert. "As a matter of fact, it's almost like the �perfect storm' right now," he says. "We've finally reached a point where it's actually going to be cheaper to take garbage to a plasma plant and make energy than it is to take the garbage and just dump it into a landfill."

Commercial plasma gasification facilities haven't gained much traction in the United States yet, but they are catching on in other countries. Japan has three plants in operation: a 166 ton-per-day pilot plant in Yoshi, co-developed by Hitachi Metals Ltd. and Westinghouse Plasma Corp., which was certified after a demonstration period from 1999-'00; a 165-ton-per-day plant in Utashinai City, completed in 2002; and a 28 ton-per-day plant commissioned by the twin cities of Mihama and Mikata in 2002. PlascoEnergy Group currently employs a plasma-arc waste demonstration plant in Ottawa, Canada, at the Trail Road Landfill while Advanced Plasma Power has built a Gasplasma modular test facility in Faringdon, Oxfordshire, England.

The question is, with plasma gasification being touted as holding inherent advantages over conventional incineration, landfill and/or burying methods and is being employed internationally, why isn't there one single commercial-scale plasma gasification facility operating in the United States?

"The main reason is because with any new technology you generally cannot get it financed," says Jeff Surma, president and chief executive officer of InEnTec Chemical LLC, adding that it typically costs about $1 million to $300 million to implement.

Formed by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Battelle and General Electric, the Bend, Ore.-based company developed a proprietary Plasma Enhanced Melter gasification system that's used in small-scale operations in Hawaii, Japan and Malaysia for disposing of hazardous waste. Domestically, the company is deploying its PEM technology on a commercial scale in Reno, Nev. The project, named Sierra BioFuels, will be owned by Fulcram BioEnergy Inc., which is also providing design, finance and construction services. InEnTec's newly-created subsidiary, InEnTec Energy Solutions LLC, will have a minority stake in the project.

When it begins operating in early 2010, the Sierra BioFuels plant is expected to produce approximately 10.5 MMgy of ethanol and process about 90,000 tons of MSW per year. In addition to the Reno project, InEnTec says it has contracts with Dow Corning Corp. and Veolia Environmental Services to build the nation's first plasma-based gasification process to recycle hazardous waste using the company's PEM technology at Dow Corning's plant in Midland, Mich. The PEM facility will be operated by Veolia. "The only way to build these plants is to go get pure equity and that's a little different than debt," Surma says. "You give away a lot when you raise equity. It's a balance of trying to raise enough equity to build those first ones-two or three plants will then allow you to get more traditional project financing."

Developers see feasibility studies as a springboard to prove the technology and get more facilities built in the United States.

Focusing on Feasibility
No doubt developers will be keeping their eyes on International Falls, Minn. An extensive feasibility study was launched in late June for a proposed biomass waste-to-energy plasma gasification project in the small town in Koochiching County. Westinghouse Plasma is heading the preliminary design work for the gasification reactor and design of the torch. Minneapolis-based plasma gasification consulting and development company Coronol LLC is serving as the lead developer and project manager. The feasibility study is being independently reviewed by Seattle-based advisory firm R.W. Beck. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is overseeing the study, which was funded by the state of Minnesota.


"We don't represent our technology as a �silver bullet'," says Mark Montemurro, president and chief executive officer of Calgary, Canada-based Alter NRG, which is the parent company of Westinghouse Plasma. Westinghouse Plasma is considered to be the premier supplier of plasma gasification technology in the world. The company is also supplying plasma gasification equipment for Coskata's cellulosic ethanol production plant in Madison, Penn. Alter NRG will use an array of biomass feedstocks to create a syngas to which Coskata will run through its technology process, which converts the syngas into ethanol. Montemurro says that construction is underway and Alter NRG expects the facility to be operational by early next year. "We think it has to be developed in conjunction with other recycling programs as well as potentially other technologies that are more financially suitable for dealing with certain types of biomass," Montemurro says.

So what factors led to Koochiching County's decision to implement plasma gasification technology? "The simple answer is timing, public acceptance, technology and economics," says Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching County Economic Development Authority in International Falls, noting that the final stages of the study should be concluded later this year. "This solution made a lot of sense to us. It's attractive because you're getting rid of the emissions, producing energy and you're not putting anything in the ground."

Once the feasibility study is complete and if the county decides to proceed, the demonstration project would process more than 100 tons of MSW per day using all of Koochiching County's waste, along with similar waste materials gathered from neighboring counties.

According to John Howard, chief technical officer for Coronal, successful commercialization of plasma gasification technology in the United States depends on how well the due diligence is carried out before a project comes to fruition. "Conducting due diligence as prudently as possible is critical for developing these projects," he says. "We try to take this approach for every one of our projects. We have to prove that this solution works and that, for the most part, is what the International Falls project is about."

As with any new technology, navigating through complicated permitting hurdles is a part of the process when developing a new project of this nature. Other factors, such as assessing the type of MSW produced in a specific location, are equally important, according to Surma.

"One of the things we've chosen to do is to keep our technology at a scale that meets the needs of local communities," he says. "The nice thing about keeping it on a smaller scale, say 250 to 500 tons per day, is that you're dealing with just locally generated material. What has historically been the real issue in getting any of these large waste processing facilities permitted wherever you choose to build it, is that you're bringing in waste from 20 miles away to fill up that plant and the host community doesn't particularly like having everyone else's waste dumped on them."

In addition to InEnTec, there are two other projects being developed in the United States. The first plasma-based waste disposal system in the country is scheduled to be operational in St. Lucie County, Fla. Developed by Geoplasma Inc., the plant is expected tovaporize 200 to 400 tons of waste per day and is scheduled to come on line in 2009.
The city of Tallahassee, Fla., has signed the largest plasma arc waste-to-energy contract to date with Jacksonville, Fla.-based Green Power Systems LLC to process 1,000 tons of MSW per day using plasma torches designed by Westinghouse Plasma. The Harris Group Inc. is serving as the architect and engineer for the project.

According to Richard Basford, vice president of project development for GPS, completion of the project is scheduled for October 2010. GPS will also deliver 35 net megawatts of electricity to the city of Tallahassee's electricity provider as part of a 30-year power purchase agreement.

"We're very positive about the plasma process," Basford says. "I think as soon as several of these get on line and operating, and people gain some confidence, you'll see them widespread. However, somebody has to be the first so that others can use that as a blueprint for success going forward."

Bryan Sims is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 738-4950.