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Talking Trash

City Council member Bob Painter is nearly alone in his embrace of a new technology to get rid of garbage, but he remains convinced the plasma arc is the future of trash disposal

By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

September 13, 2007

Dr. Bob Painter has a dream. It's to incinerate municipal solid waste at temperatures exceeding those found on the surface of the sun.

Painter's dream is bigger and more audacious than you might think. The technology he wants to use to vaporize Hartford's waste, called a plasma arc torch, takes trash-burning to a whole new level, but is currently being used only in pilot plants in Japan.

Painter, a city councilman who heads up Hartford's Plasma Arc Task Force, ticked off the benefits of the technology recently over breakfast at one of his favorite haunts The Pantry on Capitol Avenue.

The plasma arc torch was developed in the early 1900s for the steel industry, before being appropriated by NASA in the 1960s to simulate the heat of re-entry. It's analogous to creating lightning in a bottle using copper electrodes, and burns waste in crucibles at temperatures of more than 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of the sun is just under 11,000 degrees.

Because of the extreme temperatures, says Painter, the plasma arc torch can handle anything, including medical waste and hazardous waste, which Hartford currently ships out of state at a cost of $500 per ton.

"It breaks everything down," said Painter. "The inorganic stuff as it solidifies and cools forms a glass-like slag the EPA says is non-reactive and stable. The organic stuff turns into synthetic gas that can drive a turbine to create electricity."

Painter said 40 percent of the electricity generated could be used to run the plasma arc plant itself, while the other 60 percent could be sold back to the electrical grid.

Hartford is currently paying $69 per ton to have its garbage burned by more conventional methods at the trash-to-energy plant operated by the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority on 90 acres near Brainard Field. Lee C. Erdmann, the city's chief operating officer, said Hartford sends 110,000 tons of trash yearly to the CRRA plant.

The plant burns a total of 3,000 tons of trash every day, according to spokesman Paul Nonnenmacher, which makes the pilot plants in Japan, processing 300 tons of garbage daily, look pretty inadequate.

But a private company based in Atlanta, called Geoplasma, is preparing to build the world's first full-scale plasma arc facility for garbage in St. Lucie County, Fla. at a reported cost of $425 million. The plant will process about 3,000 tons daily, presumably enough capacity to handle Hartford and the 68 or so other towns that send their garbage to the CRRA plant.

"This company is taking all the risk," said Painter, who has met with Geoplasma officials in Georgia. The plant is scheduled to open next year.

Painter has a number of scenarios in mind for the future of plasma arc technology in Hartford. One would be for CRRA to convert its plant to the torch the boldest of the options, and the least likely to happen.

"CRRA says it's too expensive and that it's not going to work," said Painter. "They've got enough problems and don't want more."

Nonnenmacher estimated the disposal fee for trash would increase to $200 to $250 per ton if CRRA converted to the plasma arc process. It would cost an estimated $300 million to build the plant, plus "it consumes enormous amounts of electricity," said Nonnenmacher.

"If you look at it from strict dollars and cents the economics don't work yet," he said.

That conflicts sharply with what Painter says Geoplasma officials have told him that they will make money with a disposal fee of just $30 per ton.

Joel Rinebold, director of energy at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, suggests using the St. Lucie plant as a guinea pig for Hartford.

"I want to see hard data," said Rinebold. "I'm primarily concerned with the economics, but I'm also concerned about keeping up with the flow rate. You have to move a lot of waste without failure. You can't ask the public to hold on to garbage."

Painter faces broader, but not unexpected, criticism from the environmental community and from Dr. Mark Mitchell of the Coalition for Environmental Justice in particular. Mitchell has long said Hartford shouldn't be a dumping ground for the state's garbage and particularly not for the medical and/or hazardous waste a plasma arc facility could handle.

"I'm very concerned that we already have five different types of regional waste we take care of in Hartford," said Mitchell. "I would not be in favor of adding another facility that would take a sixth different type of waste."

A scaled-down version of Painter's plasma arc dream anticipates building a pilot plant in the North Meadows landfill, scheduled to be closed down by next year. Under this plan the technology could be proven out with existing garbage, converting the 100-acre landfill to viable commercial property in the process. But the state Department of Environmental Protection doesn't see that one happening any time soon.

"The costs would be enormous because the technology is very energy intensive and because the logistics of employing it would involve digging up the landfill to move material through a processing center," said DEP spokesman Dennis Schain.

Schain said the DEP prefers sticking with the "environmentally sound closing plan" for the landfill it has worked out with the city and the CRRA, using the land for "passive recreational purposes."

But an undaunted Painter figures the pilot plant could at least handle Hartford's 300 tons of garbage daily, and provide leverage when the city's current contract with CRRA runs out in 2012.

"If CRRA won't do a big plant, we'd have a plant that handles our trash," said Painter. "It would be better if CRRA had a big vision. They could start testing right now."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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