Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why hasn’t plasma arc technology been implemented or widely accepted in the United States?

A: The first plasma Waste-to-Energy (WTE) patent was issued in 1973. However, at that time it was not economically feasible to build these facilities. Municipal solid waste (MSW) tipping fees at the plasma plant would have had to be approximately $10.00 per ton in order to break even, while MSW could be taken to a landfill for disposal at less than $2.00 per ton. It was not until the early 1990’s that landfilling and energy costs at many locations rose to the point that it became cost-effective to take MSW to a plasma facility for gasification and energy production. The first prototype plasma WTE system (25 tons/day) was completed in Yoshii, Japan in 1999. Based on the success of this facility, two commercial plants were built: in Mihama-Mikata, Japan (25 tons/day) and in Utashinai, Japan (245 tons/day). The design of these two facilities is being used as the basis for the design of several plasma gasification WTE plants currently under development. It is anticipated that successful completion and operation of these facilities will result in widespread global interest in plasma gasification technology.

Q: Why aren’t Power Companies endorsing plasma gasification as an alternative source of renewable energy?

A: MSW was not considered a source of renewable energy in the US until the 2005 Energy Act. Therefore, up until that time, there was no incentive for power companies to consider the waste-to-energy benefits of MSW and to reap the rewards of using renewable energy sources. Even today, only about half the states in the US accept MSW as a source of renewable energy for their “Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS).” In the meantime, many power companies have already committed resources to other renewable energy

Q: Can electricity produced in a plasma facility utilize public utility power lines to transmit their power?

A: Yes. By law, public utility companies are required to purchase power from renewable energy companies and deliver it to their customers.

Q: Will emissions from plasma gasification WTE plants meet Federal standards?

A: The EPA has recently concluded that WTE power plants produce electricity “with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” For example, as part of combined cycle electricity production, the syngas is cooled and cleaned to at least natural gas pipeline quality and sent to a gas turbine for electricity production. Thus, emissions from this plasma gasification process would be as clean, or cleaner, than natural gas emissions from domestic household gas stoves.

Q: How does the cost of plasma-generated power compare with other renewable energy technologies?

A: In the US, the capital costs of waste-to-energy plasma plants compare very well with the costs of the new generation of waste-to-energy mass burn incinerators. A recent comparative cost analysis by a large international plasma system manufacturing company indicated that the capital cost per installed megawatt of plasma power would be almost 50% below the capital cost of a comparable mass burn incineration facility. Another study by a large U.S. power company showed lower capital expenditures (CAPEX) per unit of energy produced for a plasma facility than comparable nuclear, solar, and off-shore wind facilities.

Q: What about greenhouse gas emissions?

A: In landfills, garbage produces methane, a greenhouse gas. But if that garbage were sent to a plasma gasification facility, it would not have a chance to produce methane. What’s more, the energy generated could replace energy made at a fossil fuel power plant. In fact, for every ton of MSW sent to a plasma gasification facility for power generation, up to 2 tons of CO2 emissions are prevented from being emitted into the atmosphere.

Q: How much energy could plasma WTE gasification produce?

A: Plasma gasification of 1 ton of average MSW would send about 815 kilowatt-hours of electricity to the grid. This is 20-50 percent more electricity to the grid than any other existing or emerging thermal WTE technology. In addition, this power output is over six times the electricity required to conduct the gasification process. According to the EPA, if all the MSW in the US was processed by plasma gasification, up to 4% of the US electrical energy requirements could be produced. This amount of power is equal to about 20 nuclear power plants. Other studies have concluded that global waste could produce up to 10% of the worldwide electricity demand. Similarly, the 2007 US Energy Act recommends that “garbage” be used to replace edible foods such as corn to produce ethanol. It was estimated that MSW could produce up to 30% of the 36 billion gallons of ethanol required in the US by the year 2022.

Q: How does plasma WTE gasification compare with other renewable resources?

A: The US EPA has stated that MSW is the only important WTE materials stream. Plasma processing of municipal solid waste in the US has the potential to create more renewable energy than the projected energy from solar, wind, landfill gas, and geothermal energies combined.

Q: Can plasma gasification process wastes other than MSW?

A: In addition to MSW, plasma WTE plants can process industrial wastes, biomass, coal, coke, and other carbonaceous materials. The plants could produce electricity as well as ethanol, methanol, diesel fuel, hydrogen, and other syngas-based fuel products. When plasma gasification is fully developed, even existing landfills could be economically mined for energy production, environmental cleanup and land reuse.

Q: What is the future potential for plasma gasification?

A: Plasma gasification could play even more important future roles in the fields of clean coal gasification, secondary oil recovery, oil shale, gas shale and tar sands recovery processes. Truly, plasma gasification is an incipient environmental blockbuster, ready to leap ahead of current concepts of waste disposal, energy production, and environmental cleanup.


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