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December 2006

Progressive county in Florida plans to gasify trash The plasma-heating unit creates the plasma arc used to turn trash into gas and rock-like material.

Plans are in the works to build a $425 million plasma gasification facility to destroy municipal solid waste in St. Lucie County, Florida. The facility is designed to dispose of waste and provide energy to the power grid at no cost to taxpayers.

Geoplasma LLC, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Jacoby Development Inc., is developing the facility, which is designed to process 3,000 tons of garbage a day. The facility will generate 120 megawatts of power for the power grid and 40 megawatts to operate the facility. "It will be the largest municipal solid waste processing facility using plasma gasification in the world," said Hilburn Hillestad president of Geoplasma.

The plasma arc technology, which was originally developed by NASA in the 1960s to test the integrity of heat shield material to protect spacecrafts upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, can be applied to all types of different wastes, including industrial wastes, organic wastes, and biohazardous wastes, according to Geoplasma.

Plasma arc technology can recover enough energy from 1,000 tons of waste to power approximately 12,000 homes for a day. The technology uses electricity and high-pressure air to create plasma with temperatures exceeding 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a gasification and pyrolysis process, not combustion or burning of solid waste, according to Geoplasma. The inorganic materials and compounds melt and solidify into obsidian-like materials suitable for reuse as gravel and other construction materials.

There is already a track record in place with regard to plasma arch technology, Hillestad said. A General Motors (GM) plant in Defiance, Ohio has been using the same torch system by Westinghouse since 1989 that the St. Lucie County facility will use. GM has been using it in a foundry to recreate very high temperatures to recycle scrap metal.

A smaller torch system has also been in use for several years to actually destroy municipal solid waste in Japan. The plant was built by Hitachi Metals Ltd. and also utilizes the Westinghouse torch design. "The torches are well tested," Hillestad said.

Hillestad said he expects the St. Lucie facility to be operational by the third quarter of 2009. Geoplasma is financing the project through tax-exempt bonds. UBS Investment Bank will help with the bond sales. St. Lucie County, 90 miles north of Miami Beach, will not assume any of the financial responsibilities, Hillestad said.

Ron Roberts, assistant director of the Solid Waste Department in St. Lucie County said the county started looking at alternatives for solid waste management around two years ago. The county researched 55 to 65 different companies. Staff members also traveled to Georgia Tech Research Institute to see how the gasification process works.

"They put it (trash) in and they gasified it right in front of our eyes. What was left was a little piece of slag molten stuff that is inert," Roberts said. A team from the county also traveled to Japan to look at a smaller plasma gasification facility in operation.

St. Lucie County then decided to ask for a request for qualifications for any company that could design, permit, finance, construct, and own and operate a plasma arc gasification facility for 3,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day. When Geoplasma was the only respondent the county board authorized the start of contract negotiations.

Once operational, the facility will process 2,000 tons of incoming garbage a day as well as 1,000 tons a day that would be mined out of the county's existing landfill. Roberts said that he expects the existing landfill to be eliminated in 15 to 18 years.

"It is very exciting that we've come this far in solid waste management that we can do it this way instead of the medieval practice of burying garbage," Roberts said.

Since the announcement of the new facility in St. Lucie County, Hillestad said waste managers from around 35 states and from about 15 countries have contacted Geoplasma. "We have been astounded by the outpouring of interest," Hillestad said. He said he expects similar projects to be announced in the near future. "We have other negotiations underway right now with other municipalities," Hillestad said.

Higher energy prices along with government interest in renewable energy have helped to boost interest, Hillestd said. "We have a model that is just very timely."

The synthetic gas produced from the solid waste is competitive with natural gas, Hillestad said. "We can produce a large volume of electricity at a good rate for sale to the local utility grid. The synthetic gas is directly competitive, price wise, with natural gas."

The need to dispose of solid waste by alternative means has been around for years, Hillestad said. "But the economic component is really being driven by the fact that we generate a lot of power. That's green power from a renewable source."


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