January 20, 2007
Plasma Converts Wastes To Energy

How about an energy technology that will reduce the need for landfills while replacing as much as a quarter of the gasoline burned in the United States?

The technology, developed originally by researchers at MIT and at Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL), in Richland, WA, doesn't incinerate refuse, so it doesn't produce the pollutants that have historically plagued efforts to convert waste into energy. Instead, the technology vaporizes organic materials to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a mixture called synthesis gas, or syngas, that can be used to synthesize a wide variety of fuels and chemicals. The technology has been further developed and commercialized by a spinoff called Integrated Environmental Technologies (IET), also based in Richland, WA. In addition to processing municipal waste, the technology can be used to create ethanol out of agricultural biomass waste, providing a potentially less expensive way to make ethanol than current corn-based plants.

If you go to the IET company history page you'll find the base technology was originally developed using US Department of Energy research funds. The DOE wanted a way to better process nuclear wastes. But the scientists involved in the work recognized they could adapt the technology to process a larger range of wastes and produce energy as a result. I point all this out for the benefit of my orthodox libertarian readers who repeatedly argue that government funded research can't solve our energy problems.

There is enough municipal and industrial waste produced in the United States for the system to replace as much as a quarter of the gasoline used in this country, says Daniel Cohn, a cofounder of IET and a senior research scientist at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

But can the process make ethanol at a lower cost than use of corn? IET thinks their process will cost 95 cents per gallon of ethanol or lower. Since ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline you have to multiply by 1.5 to get the equivalent cost per gasoline gallon.

IET has a big cost advantage over corn ethanol plants: They would get paid to take the waste they'll use as inputs to their plants. How much of an advantage would depend on how much they get paid for the waste. If their plants could be designed to fit in densely populated areas (think a borough of New York City) then in heavily urban areas they'd save on hauling costs to take the trash to more distant landfills. In rural areas their plants would tend to be further away than the nearest dump. So their technology strikes me as better suited for the most densely populated areas.

IET has not yet decided how best to use the carbon monoxide and hydrogen their process produces. They need a cost effective system with a catalyst that'll bind the hydrogen to the carbon to produce liquid hydrocarbons. Can they get their costs low enough to do that?

Since they have hydrogen as an intermediate product with the right catalyst they might be able to produce a carbon-based liquid fuel that is more reduced (has more hydrogen) than ethanol does. That'd make the fuel more like gasoline and reduce the frequency of gasoline station stops by a third as compared to ethanol.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 January 20 12:35 PM  Energy Biomass

Libertarian Joe said at January 20, 2007 1:29 PM:

If this technology solves the world's energy problems sometime in the next year or so, I'll happily turn in my libertarian card. Otherwise....

Great blog though, if I haven't said so before. I read it every day.

wcw said at January 20, 2007 2:27 PM:

Curious, I checked out the company's filings at the SEC. They're a cashburner with no funding of which to speak. If you love their tech and have a couple million sitting around, I am certain they'd dilute away current shareholders for you. If they were a small division of a large company that had brought products like this to market before, I'd mark this project as a plus. As insolvent beggars, though, I worry that even if the technology works, it'll simply sink and vanish.

We'll see, sooner or later.

rsilvetz said at January 20, 2007 2:45 PM:

Well, that's not the "orthodox libertarian position".

The orthodox libertarian position, is all things begin equal, government research displaces private research, reduces overall total reseach in an area, and in so doing replaces it with research of inferior quality. The logical extension of this is this unlikely that a commercially-viable process will emerge from this. This has to do with the fact that both cost-discipline and competitive disciplines remain absent from government processes. Thus the orthodox libertarian doesn't support government funding of research. Plus it's immoral to steal from Peter to fund Paul's research regardless of the return on investment.

The preponderance of the evidence favors these conclusions. Since 1978 the DOE has spent directly on R&D $210 billion which upto the point of this article had produced NO processes that could be considered commercially viable in the large-scale. (Nota bene: This doesn't mean they didn't have successful projects e.g SynGas for example -- it means they haven't changed the fundamental issues we face -- which is their mandate.) Which implies that the agency has been an abject failure for a quarter of a century. Only in the upside-down Marxist view of the universe does an agency that spends $210 billion with nothing to show for it get from pundits the blessing that we should allocate more funding to it.

Ironically, this is the same DOE that didn't extend the 1969 Farnsworth fusor -- leaving it to Boussard to make the first model capable of sustained reactions (funded now by Google). And it's the same DOE that abandoned pion-based fusion which has been recently shown at GE in three-way US/UK/Australia cooperation to be viable. Since we now know fusion is on the horizon all this clap-trap about ethanol and other sources goes by the wayside. The road is open to the obvious -- reformulation of methane into hydrogen for a direct shot at the hydrogen economy. Or alternatively, sufficient fusors means electric-everything and we bypass the hydrogen economy.

As a historical note, the AEC was the most responsible for the death of the Farnsworth fusor. The indirect threat that ITT would be cut of from government souces of money for pursuing "dead-end fusion research" is an unintended consequence of having .gov meddle in private business research. Even Farnsworth's untimely death would not necessarily delayed the project and we might have had fusion as early as 1980....

rsilvetz said at January 20, 2007 3:53 PM:

A propos the general orthodox libertarian position: Stem Cell Research over at Reason.

The crucial paragraph relative to our discussion:

It is a truism among academic researchers and many economists that Federal funding is necessary for basic research and that such funding is perpetually inadequate. However, a 2001 study by Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development researchers found that in fact that higher spending by industry on R&D correlates nicely with higher economic growth rates. In contrast to the academic truisms about the need for Federal funding, the study found that “business‑performed R&D … drives the positive association between total R&D intensity and output growth.”

The OECD researchers noted that publicly funded defense research actually crowded out private research, “while civilian public research is neutral with respect to business‑performed R&D.” In other words, government funded civilian research didn’t hurt private sector but there wasn’t much evidence that it helped, at least in the short term.

Vince said at January 20, 2007 8:34 PM:

"Which implies that the agency has been an abject failure for a quarter of a century."

That's ridiculous. That it hasn't been a success doesn't make it an abject failure. Research isn't a binary win/lose crapshoot. Research builds on to other research. Even if they haven't totally changed the landscape of the energy situation we face, they've still figured out lots and lots of ways of how not to do things. That's important, because you have to know what doesn't work and how before you can even conceive of what will. Their research gets documented and made available, whereas the research done by private corporations often gets put under wraps.

rsilvetz said at January 20, 2007 9:56 PM:

Oh for Pete's Sake Vince!

Do you understand the scale here?

They wasted $210 billion.

And yes Vince -- it's a binary thing -- success or failure. Either we have something to show for it -- or we don't. A pile of useless paper called research knowledge, I could have bought privately at 1/100th the cost, doesn't count.

For the DOE, if you divide returns on successful projects for money spent we are talking something on the order of 10^E-03. That's right Vince - a tenth of a cent for every dollar spent! (And that's being real generous. Personally I think it is accounting gimmicks because it doesn't take into account subsidies to prop up DOE ideas in other areas not directly in the DOE budget.) In private organizations the ROI is as high as thousands of dollars per employee and millions per project -- and between $3 and $10 to 1 overall, depending where you look and how you do the calculation.

We would have been infinitely better off if they had simply bought 100 billion gallons of gasoline and distributed it equally amongst us. Really.

Most of y'all have never run an R&D program, don't know how to do a cost-benefit decision, and have this idea that money can be spent for your causes over all other because "it makes sense costwise" to borrow a phrase. Never mind it is not your money, that you *really* don't know one end of an R&D pipeline from another, shouldn't be making those decisions anyhow because of extreme ignorance of the subject matter, and that in point of fact what good has come is at a cost of 10-100 times what it would have been otherwise.

This also ignores the draconian tax regime which y'all foist on us -- on the order of 100 times more than a medieval surf, the hidden costs of tax compliance (as high as $125-$250 billion per year), and the cost of the regulatory overstructure (about $1.5 trillion per year) that makes it impossible to do things productively and very profitably such that R&D is a no-brainer funding decision.

I'm hardly a dogmatic libertarian -- I started out like every good kid in this world -- so far left Marx himself would have blushed. But I was a scientist first, which meant I applied science to politics, which historically was political economy. Much to my dismay I found the Austrian school to be mostly right which inevitably leads to free-market thinking. The rest is history which just repeats to the epitome of boredom.

Bob said at January 20, 2007 10:14 PM:

an agency that spends $210 billion with nothing to show

You all know that DOE has very little to with thermopane windows or generating electricity, right? They're the civilian organization that designs, manufactures, monitors, and owns the U.S. nuclear stockpile. That's what the $210 billion went for. We got nukes that are reliable and safe. If there was any energy research, it was mostly an after-thought.


Randall Parker said at January 21, 2007 9:18 AM:

Robert Silvetz,

Are you saying that's the total amount the DOE has spent on that year range? Or the total amount on civilian energy research?

First off, the DOE runs a bunch of weapons labs and I think it constructs and maintains all the US nuclear arsenal. That's hugely expensive.

Second, I've looked at some specific categories of research spending by the DOE. For example, I've recently reported it spends all of $25 million a year on battery research. Also, about 4 or 5 years ago I posted that the DOE was spending all of $30 million a year on basic photovoltaics research. But there was an additional amount spent on thin films photovoltaics that I couldn't pin down exactly.

By comparison we are burning about $3 billion a week in Iraq and that doesn't count the future costs of caring for all the permanently injured or the lost income of those who died.

So, again, what number are you really quoting and what is your source for that number?

Sione Vatu said at January 21, 2007 1:27 PM:


This all looks like a boondoggle. What a waste.

BTW, the nuclear aresenal is a titanic boondoggle. Another waste.

Had people been left to keep, control and consume their own money and resources, then they would have been far better off.


PS The moral is: of course it's only chump change when it's someone else's money your blowing!

Sumyung Guy said at January 22, 2007 6:23 AM:


Nice post as always, and hopefully something will come of this. Regardless of whether this tech replaces cellulosic ethanol (or any other kind), it might make a nice solution for what the hell to do with all the garbage our cities produce. This "politically moderate" reader (as you may remember) likes the idea of following up on this. It seems a damn better use of my taxpayer dollars than the boondoggle we're involved in right now in Iraq.

Jim said at January 22, 2007 8:14 AM:

nice post.

i'm pretty libertarian, but it's silly for scientists/engineers to forget how grad school functioned financially (or maybe never really looked)
of course academics argue the need for federal funding $ - that's what pays their bills IN ACADEMIA

this supports my libertarian views of leaving basic SCIENCE for gov't/university labs and letting science-based ENGINEERING operate in the real world of individuals' hard-earned capital on the line to solve real problems. university/gov't labs are terrible at making useful things from their scientific discoveries.

it's like the nature-nuture argument, arguing for either orthodox extreme is silly.

Randall Parker said at January 22, 2007 6:47 PM:


I treat energy research as an exception because current energy sources have big external costs that the market doesn't capture in prices. I've previously mentioned a number of problems that arise from your use of fossil fuels. These problems generate costs far in excess of what I'm arguing we should spend on research to obsolesce fossil fuels.

wcw said at January 22, 2007 10:20 PM:

My favorite part of your new troll's spluttering wasn't the part where he forgets about the Pentagon, but the moment he a) pretends that being a "scientist" qualifies him to make judgments about economics and b) that the Austrian school is "mostly right". In a brief moment of weakness, I pass along for his edification the classic Krugman critique of the Austrian school. I have more sympathy for Hayek and Schumpeter than PK, but which I would never them as "mostly right".

Here's the problem: As a matter of simple arithmetic, total spending in the economy is necessarily equal to total income (every sale is also a purchase, and vice versa). So if people decide to spend less on investment goods, doesn't that mean that they must be deciding to spend more on consumption goods--implying that an investment slump should always be accompanied by a corresponding consumption boom? And if so why should there be a rise in unemployment?

Most modern hangover theorists probably don't even realize this is a problem for their story. Nor did those supposedly deep Austrian theorists answer the riddle. The best that von Hayek or Schumpeter could come up with was the vague suggestion that unemployment was a frictional problem created as the economy transferred workers from a bloated investment goods sector back to the production of consumer goods. (Hence their opposition to any attempt to increase demand: This would leave "part of the work of depression undone," since mass unemployment was part of the process of "adapting the structure of production.") But in that case, why doesn't the investment boom--which presumably requires a transfer of workers in the opposite direction--also generate mass unemployment? And anyway, this story bears little resemblance to what actually happens in a recession, when every industry--not just the investment sector--normally contracts.

As I noted, this company is probably going to sink without funding, but not because the DoE was involved somewhere up the chain. Theology is a bad way to make investment decisions.

ScottyB said at January 23, 2007 4:46 PM:

I'm not going to touch the big debate going on here in the comments. Concerning the technology, however, I can say this:

The gasification of organic material to produce syngas, and the subsequent catalyzation of that syngas into liquid fuels is getting more attention these days. Whether that catalyzation occurs with either metallic or organic (aka, bacteria) methods, it is much simpler than trying to break plants apart (the cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin) with complex and expensive enzymes developed from fungi. Some scientists are wondering if it will ever be economical.

On the other hand, catalyzing syngas is pretty simple. Our biggest challenge so far is cleaning up the gas (removing tar and particulate matter) so the catalysts don't die on us. We use fluidized bed reactors instead of plasma to gasify our feedstock.

This plasma discharge sounds like an interesting idea, but it requires electricity, a lot of electricity, to produce the plasma. And if you want to stay carbon-neutral, the electricity has to come from a renewable source like wind or solar. Another option would be to use some of the syngas produced to turn a turbine, which will turn a generator..... but your inefficiencies begin to add up pretty quickly.

I think capital costs of this process will be too high to be economically feasible. A low-pressure, directly heated, fluidized bed reactor would be cheaper to build.

P.S. I work for one of those socialist, taxpayer-money-wasting public universities. Thank you all for your support!

Randall Parker said at January 23, 2007 5:21 PM:


I see a few questions (at least):

1) How much energy does it take to convert the waste into gases as compared to how much energy is in the gasses?

2) How much energy gets lost converting the gasses into hydrocarbons?

3) Does the conversion into hydrocarbons require advances in catalysis that are still in the realm of science or more in the realm of engineering refinement?

If the energy costs aren't too bad and the catalysis problem is solvable then this approach could be a boon for us all. Less trash and less need for oil. But we need more facts to know.

I know when I write some of these posts that key facts are missing. But sometimes I can dig up pieces of the puzzle later and sometimes smart readers come up with missing pieces. I see my energy policy posts as very much a work in progress.


A long time ago I read the Austrians, I read the Objectivists, I read the libertarians. I recognize the Objectivist style of argument: "check your premises". Well, I've been down that road. I know what some of the errors are in each school of thought. There's no philosophy or economic theory that is sufficient to build a correct model of society. You have to start with human biology and be totally reductionist to have a chance to reason your way somewhere near the truth - or at least as near the truth as our minds are capable of understanding.

As for PK's critique of the Austrians: Stampedes occur. In one phase everyone is motivated by greed. Then when the market turns suddenly lots of people are motivated by fear. The fears can become self-fulfilling prophecies and the velocity of money can drop in a big way.

I think it plausible that unnaturally low interest rates (Ben Strong of the NY Fed and Montague Normam of the Bank of London were suppoosedly to blame) could have caused overspending on capital equipment that led to the early states of the Great Depression. But today I'm not sure the same problem exists. Much more lending is done to consumers. So artificially low interest rates may cause an equally big uptick in consumer spending as well and hence visible consumer price inflation.

ScottyB said at January 24, 2007 11:26 AM:


1) The term for this is "cold gas efficiency", at least when you are talking about gasification. Here is a paper published by NREL that got 69.2% using refuse derived fuel (RDF) pellets:

Niessen, W., Markes, C., Sommerlad, R. Evaluation of Gasification and Novel Thermal Processes for the treatment of Municipal Solid Waste. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1996; NREL/TP-430-21612 Section 7.

You can probably find this online. Another unpublished paper I am looking at gives a range from 45-71%, so the efficiency of the gasifier is important.

2) It depends on how long of a hydrocarbon you want. For a Fischer-Tropsch process, the basic reaction is this:
CO + 2H2 -> -CH2- + H2O
deltaH = -165 kJ/mol
where -CH2- is a chain extension to the hydrocarbon, and "deltaH" is the energy of the reaction. This website gives a good explanation with reactions and energy:

The paper I'm listing below gives overall efficiencies for a Fischer-Tropsch plant using biomass to be between 33 and 50 percent:

Exploration of the possibilities for production of Fischer Tropsch liquids and power via biomass gasification
Tijmensen, Michiel J.A. (Dept. of Science, Technol./Society, Utrecht University); Faaij, Andre P.C.; Hamelinck, Carlo N.; Van Hardeveld, Martijn R.M. Source: Biomass and Bioenergy, v 23, n 2, 2002, p 129-152

Abstract: This paper reviews the technical feasibility and economics of biomass integrated gasification-Fischer Tropsch (BIG-FT) processes in general, identifies most promising system configurations and identifies key R and D issues essential for the commercialisation of BIG-FT technology. The FT synthesis produces hydrocarbons of different length from a gas mixture of H2 and CO. The large hydrocarbons can be hydrocracked to form mainly diesel of excellent quality. The fraction of short hydrocarbons is used in a combined cycle with the remainder of the syngas. Overall LHV energy efficiencies, calculated with the flowsheet modelling tool Aspenplus, are 33-40% for atmospheric gasification systems and 42-50% for pressurised gasification systems. Investment costs of such systems (367 MWth) are MUS$ 280-450,2 depending on the system configuration. In the short term, production costs of FT-liquids will be about US$ 16/GJ. In the longer term, with large-scale production, higher CO conversion and higher C5+ selectivity in the FT process, production costs of FT-liquids could drop to US$ 9/GJ. These perspectives for this route and use of biomass-derived FT-fuels in the transport sector are promising. Research and development should be aimed at the development of large-scale (pressurised) biomass gasification-based systems and special attention must be given to the gas cleaning section. (32 refs.)

3) The traditional method of converting syngas to liquid fuels is the Fischer-Tropsch process, which is a mature technology. But it requires high temperatures and pressures for the reaction, which consume energy. Also, the metal catalysts it uses (iron, cobalt) are poisoned by sulfur and chlorine, which also exist in biomass but at smaller amounts than they do in coal. Another issue is that the ratio of CO to H2 in the syngas stream has a significant effect on your liquid hydrocarbon yields.

Biological catalysts, on the other hand, function at standard temperatures and pressures, are more tolerant of contaminants, and don't care much about the CO/H2 ratio. They produce things like methane, acetic acid, butyric acid, ethanol, butanol, and hydrogen. My research is of a biorefinery which gasifies biomass and then ferments it with bacteria to produce hydrogen gas and PHA, a biorenewable polymer.

Hope this helps. I appreciate the work you're doing with your blog. Maybe you can use these numbers to whip up some estimates on efficiency.

Sione said at January 24, 2007 5:01 PM:

Krugman's puff piece is a nonsense. He starts from erroneous premise, engages in a little name calling and that's about it. What he completely ignores is that the introduction and distribution of unbacked fiat money affects the entire economy and is causal in setting off the cycle of economic booms and busts. It's not a matter of "for whatever reason". It's a matter of being THE causal action.

Inflating the fiat money supply is key in undermining the value of the means of exchange used by everyone (which in turn allows certain interests to consume value without producing much or, indeed, any at all). It affects all parties to various degrees.

Among other things Krugman displays ignorance of the nature and the effects of easy credit and artificially low interest rates (in fact he appears to be ignorant of the nature of credit altogether- it wrecks his premise entirely). In the end he is one of those sad old Keynesian carpetbaggers whose blind faith leads them to the idiotic idea that all one need to do to get wealthy is spend, spend, spend. As if spending money makes people wealthy.

If he were correct with his assertions, the government could eliminate poverty in a heartbeat. What a dunce!

Then there is the immorality of stealing the value of someone's wages and savings by inflating the money supply- something Mr Krugman knows about but pretended not to be aware of. Perhaps he is having a senior moment. Or maybe he's just telling furfies again!

As is taught, "Socialism can't calculate. Keynesianism can't work."



Some years ago (20 or so) there was a Prof Messerle working in Sydney, Australia. He had a student (a PhD candidate) from Egypt, Ibram Abraham (I think). They were working on magnetohydrodynamics of high temperature plasmas. The core goal was to create a super-efficient way of generating electric power from Australia's abundant coal resource while simultaneously reducing various ores (also abundant in the lucky land of Oz) to elemental metals. The process was also intended to be useful in destroying all sorts of nasties such as dioxins and furenes and the like- rendering them down into harmless by-products.

Do you know anything about this? What happended? Is research in the area of using magnetohydrodymic technology for power generation continuing?


Jim said at January 25, 2007 8:43 AM:

a related technology that can take advantage of syngas (CO + H2O) is a hydrogen membrane, which is effectively a thin film that only allows for the diffusion of hydrogen, not oxygen, carbon, molecules, etc.

it has the advantage of capturing high purity H2 that can be utilized for whatever, and it pushes the reaction towards CO2. serious technical challenges are currently associated with the films themselves, however, they would tie in nicely with future (cheap and abundant) sources of syngas.

Charlie Kress said at February 6, 2007 12:31 PM:

As I understand it, Geoplasma claims a plasma driven generation of electricity produces four times the electricity it takes to run the torch. Of course there are other energy requirements in a plasma-based plant, but this is true for any waste treatment. If steam is produced, the efficiency factor is much higher.

Charlie Kress, Treasurer
Waste Not Iowa

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