In recent weeks we have talked about waste-to-energy plants that burn waste and use the resulting heat to produce electricity. The problem, however, is that this process also produces toxic emissions. One Bill Gates-backed startup by the name of Sierra Energy has a better solution: rather than burning waste, it vaporizes it.
The startup has developed technology that heats waste up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which twice the temperature at the core of a volcano. “At that temperature, everything breaks down molecularly.” While other trash would create methane as it rots in a landfill, the extreme heat of the process and the steam create only carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Unlike an incinerator, it doesn’t produce emissions as it works; all of the gas is captured for reuse.
The gas can be used to create a variety of products, from jet fuel to plastic or fertilizer, instead of making those products from fossil fuels. If the gas is used to make fuel, that fuel will still produce emissions, but fewer than the fossil alternative. With mountains of trash starting to form in parts of the world, the solution offered up by Sierra Energy is precisely what we need right now—along with producing less waste in general.