Popular Science reports that companies like Startech are blasting trash with plasma and producing clean fuels like hydrogen as a byproduct. Basically, you put tons of trash in one end of a plasma converter, and a superheated plasma arc obliterates the trash into its molecular components. The process is called "plasma gasification". There are two byproducts: one is a "syngas" composed mostly of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can be converted into fuel. The other is molten glass that can be sold for use in household tiles or road asphalt. Amazingly, plasma converters produce enough energy to power themselves, and actually produce an excess of energy that can be sold to the grid. Still, some environmental scientists have warned that the residual substances may contain toxic heavy metals.
The solution is seductive to many cities though, since a $250 million converter can handle 2000 tons of trash per day. People are starting to take notice. The company U.S. Energy (a partnership between three ex-trash executives) is in the process of buying 6 of Startech's converters to create in a gasification plant in Long Island. Michael Nuzzi (one of the partners) explains how to turn trash into cash, "New York City is already paying an astronomical $90 a ton to get rid of its trash. According to Startech, a few 2,000-ton-per-day plasma-gasification plants could do it for $36. Sell the syngas and surplus electricity, and you'd actually net $15 a ton. "Gasification is not just environmentally friendly," Nuzzi says. "It's a good business decision."