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Energy that won’t go to waste

Updated: 9 June 2012 | 12:12 am in Gazette Guest Columnists

By Dennis Naughton


The massive fire at the Iowa City Landfill gives us an opportunity to pause and think about the hazards and to examine alternatives to landfilling. Bad things can happen in a landfill, even if nobody is at fault.

It seems so easy to just bury our waste and forget about it. But it doesn’t go away. Plastics in a landfill, when burned at low temperatures, have long been known to produce hazardous chemicals such as dioxins, which are carcinogenic. Although modern landfills are required to be lined, statistics show they all have a tendency to leak or leach out over time into the local water supply. The liners are often made of plastic — yes, the same type of plastic that can produce dioxins when burned.

Reports of tests of Iowa City’s air quality so far say the chemical content in the air is below what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. If the landfill continues to burn, hazardous air quality will continue to be a threat.

According to news reports, the lining of the landfill is ruined. In addition to the air, chemicals leaching into the land could endanger the water table downstream. The estimated $4 million to $6 million repair or replacement cost will grow.

It is just such concerns that led the city of Marion a year ago to become the only city in Iowa to adopt a zero-waste ordinance, which enables it to opt out of the regional landfilling plan and divert its waste to productive uses such as a plasma arc facility. The city formed a public/private partnership with wastenotIOWA, a non-profit organization, and Plasma Power LLC, a Florida-based startup, to facilitate the construction in Linn County of the first regional plasma gasification facility in the United States.

Plasma technology involves the application of an electrical arc or torch to waste. At 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 Celsius), gas molecules dissociate into their original atomic elements. Examples of plasma are lightning, fluorescent gas in light bulbs, and sparks from spark plugs. Referred to by its advocates as waste-to-resources, some of the products derived from this technology include synthesis gas, steam, electricity, and rock wool insulation.

Using our waste as fuel does not introduce new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Waste processed in a plasma facility is carbon neutral.

The city of Marion and wastenotIOWA Corp. selected Plasma Power LLC to build the first facility in Linn County because of its flexibility in tailoring their system design to the local customer base and waste supply, as well as the company’s engineering talent. Instead of competing with local power companies in attempting to sell electricity to the grid, Plasma Power has identified corporate customers for steam and has streamlined its system to produce steam from municipal waste at a cost lower than companies can produce it from new steam plants built since the flood of 2008.

According to Federal Emergency Management Agency reports, there were 3,108 landfill fires in 2010, some accidental and others intentionally started for such purposes as incineration methane production. Processing waste in a plasma facility differs from incineration in that municipal solid waste exposed to high heat in a plasma facility does not burn.

To protect our cities and the environment in which we live, it’s time to take a serious look at plasma arc or torch technology. Gov. Terry Branstad just signed a law granting tax credits for solar energy like those available to wind producers. It is time for Iowa to establish a complete renewable energy policy to encompass other renewable technologies, and plasma arc specifically.

After all, why bury energy?

Dennis Naughton, a Marion attorney, is president of wastenotIOWA Corp., a non-profit organization formed to study and advocate for technology solutions to landfilling. He can be reached at (319) 631-2110 or waste

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