Plasma waste facilities have had several obstacles to overcome. First, they are a new technology. As Dr. Circeo points out, it can take many years for a new technology to go from discovery to commercial use. Sometimes this gap seems to coincide rather conveniently with the expiration of the initial patent on the idea. New technologies are also expensive; almost every plasma application requires a custom built facility. Until facility production can be standardized, costs will be high for plasma plants.
Aside from the cost of custom building the plant, other costs are a major factor. Until very recently, land costs were so low that it was cheaper to use landfills than it would be to design, build and maintain a plasma waste facility. Environmental concerns often take a back seat to economic realities, and it wasn't until tipping fees (the fee you have to pay to have garbage hauled to landfills) increased and landfill space decreased that plasma plants became economically feasible. Even in an ecologically-concerned culture, some companies don't focus on the environmental aspect for their business model. GeoPlasma, for example, positions itself as a power facility that uses a renewable resource for fuel. Dr. Hillestad of GeoPlasma asserts that by focusing on GeoPlasma's ability to produce electricity for low costs makes it a viable operation.
Waste management is big business. Any major revolution in waste management faces critics and opposition from those that benefit from the status quo. As environmental pressures increase (both from the perspective of waste management and that of renewable sources for fuel), city and county governments are more willing to explore alternate strategies to handle waste.
Making Plasma Plants Profitable
Plasma waste treatment facilities are becoming more cost effective, however. Because a plasma plant can generate revenue beyond tipping fees, they can competitively price tipping fees to make it cheaper to ship garbage to the facility than a landfill. As plasma facilities are standardized, tipping fees will continue to decrease.
With the right capacity, a plasma plant can generate enough syngas to run an engine or gas turbine and generate electricity. A 1,000 ton per day plant can generate enough electricity to power the plant itself and still have plenty of power to sell back to the grid.
The hot gases can be used to generate steam, which can turn steam turbines for electricity or be used to generate heat for the plant and other facilities.
Slag can be sold in any of its forms. The rock form can be used as gravel or molded into bricks. Sand can be mixed with concrete and used in various paving and construction projects. Rock wool can be used for insulation or to contain dangerous oil spills. The St. Lucie County plant will produce 12 tons per day of vitrified slag (from 1,000 tons of waste). If the molten slag is cooled by water, metal nodules can be separated from the slag and sold for scrap. The St. Lucie facility is expected to produce about 4 tons per day.
We'll look at what the future may hold for plasma gasification technology next.