Neon signs, some believe, hold the secret to the future of the earth.
Inside that kitschy “We’re Open!” sign, a word made of molded glass gas-discharge tubes, is an ionized gas: plasma. Usually a combination of inert gases, the plasma is trapped inside a vacuum and sizzles at hundreds of degrees Celsius. Electricity “excites” the atoms, which lose their electrons and become an electrolyte. Later, when the atoms return to lower energy levels, they jettison excess power by launching photons. Thus, they glow.
Touch the sign, however, and your hand won’t burn. Although the plasma is hot enough to melt steel, there isn’t enough of it to conduct significant energy.
Welcome to just one of the many mysteries of plasma. A non-Maxwellian, infinitely conductive state of matter, capable of generating electromagnetic fields and propagating waves, plasma has long captured the eye of scientists and crackpots alike. Yet until neon signs debuted in the 1920s, most Earthlings associated plasma only with the silvery fingers of forked lightning.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American generates about 4.4 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) – things like grass clippings, apples, paint, sweaters – every day. This adds up to over 250 million tons yearly. The bad news is that Americans have generated more than four pounds of waste daily since the 1980s. The good news is that recycling rates have more than doubled since then, currently peaking around 35 percent by weight.
Yet more than half the country’s MSW, almost 150 million tons – that’s 300,000,000,000 pounds – goes into landfills. And about 12 percent of that waste is burned to create electricity in waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration plants.
Plasma can do better than this. Birthed in the 1940s, plasma gasification plants are now popular in clean-coal facilities. Unfortunately, there are less than a handful of MSW plasma gasification plants, and all of them operate in Japan.
Plasma gasification plants don’t just burn garbage for fuel; they transform it. In goes trash; out comes commodities like synthetic gas (syngas), a hydrogen-carbon monoxide mixture burned to generate electricity.
While most “alternative” energy producers looking for cleaner solutions, such as Ohio natural gas or Elon Musk’s Solar City, aim to generate power from the Earth’s resources, plasma helps us re-use what we’ve already once claimed for ourselves. Through this process, non-organic material turns into vitrified slag, which can be molded into rockwool, useful as an insulator and structural material. As a result, trash can be reorganized, atom by atom, into something immediately practical.
But such plans are too small for the researchers at EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. The group, previously funded by the U.S. Navy, is pursuing a $30 million commercial project in pursuit of the Holy Grail of physics: nuclear fusion.
Compared to the world’s most iconic experimental nuclear fusion device, a $20 billion ITER reactor in France that uses gargantuan electromagnetic fields to contain a plasmatic cloud of tritium and deuterium heated to 100 million degrees Celsius, the EMC2 Polywell is as simple as a baking soda volcano. Researchers hope their high-pressure reactor will cause atoms in plasmas to collide and release incredible power, creating a practically limitless source of energy.
Selma Thagard, chemical engineering professor at Clarkson University, has ideas that don’t cost $20 billion. Her team heats a small amount of water until it turns into plasma, which instigates a powerful electromagnetic field that can purify several gallons of drinking water in just a few minutes. “People all over the world — especially in places with few resources — could use this process to remove toxins and water-borne parasites from their drinking supply,” Thagard says.
Sound simple? Not simple enough for the likes of Mehran Tavakoli Keshe, a controversial Iranian-born nuclear engineer who purportedly developed a do-it-yourself Coke bottle plasma reactor. Some believe that Keshe has invented a perpetual motion machine of sorts, a source of “free energy.” Others say that the “Kesche Plasma Generator” is nothing more than a masquerading Baghdad battery.
Chalk it up to just another one of the many mysteries of plasma.