At Koochiching County's solid waste transfer station near International Falls, a garbage truck dumps its load into a semi-trailer. Koochiching County produces about 8,000 tons of garbage annually. Years ago the county buried its waste in local landfills. Now, the trash is shipped halfway across the state to a landfill in Kittson County. Transportation expenses and tipping fees cost the county more than half a million dollars a year.
Koochiching County Commissioner Mike Hanson stares into the heap of trash. Instead of a liability, Hanson now sees something different.
"Look at the fuel here," says Hanson. "Every time I see it that's what I'm thinking. Yeah, look at the fuel."
About 18 months ago, a Minnesota company called Coronal approached Koochiching County with a proposal. The company wants to build a $30 million solid waste facility that turns trash into energy. Unlike traditional burning or incineration, plasma gasification exposes waste to extremely high temperatures in an oxygen deprived chamber. Organic waste is broken down into its basic molecular components of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
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The company claims those gases can be refined and sold as fuels to industry. They say the facility would produce steam that could be sold, as well as enough electricity to heat 4,000 homes. Koochiching County, they say, could profit from the region's garbage.
County Commissioner Mike Hanson says at first the claims sounded like science fiction. He's now convinced the idea is worth pursuing. State lawmakers think so, too. The Legislature included $2.5 million for the project in its recent bonding bill.
"It's important to Koochiching County, but it's equally important to everybody else to the region and state," said Hanson. "If we can take our solid waste, dispose of it in an environmentally friendly manner, produce jobs, save money, and at the same time produce ancillary items like steam and electricity, it would be a win-win-win, something not done elsewhere."
Waste-to-energy isn't a new idea. Some incinerators are already doing that. But incinerators produce ash, which has to be buried in landfills. Plasma gasification, its supporters claim, makes use of everything that's thrown into it, from household garbage to construction debris.
Inorganic materials like heavy metals can't be gasified. The company claims those materials would be melted down into something called slag. The slag can be processed into environmentally friendly bricks, tiles, home insulation or road aggregate.
Plasma technology has been around for years. One basic component is the plasma torch, which has been described as lightening in a bottle. A torch consists of two copper electrodes with very high direct current passed between them. When an inert gas like nitrogen is injected through the electrodes, the gas is ionized. The flame that comes out is about 20,000 degrees.
Plasma torches have been used by NASA to test heat shields on the space shuttle. They're also used to destroy munitions and medical waste.
I can see the potential nationwide, North America-wide for that matter. 20 or 30 years from now... this will be the way that municipal solid waste will be disposed of in this country.
The challenge for promoters of plasma gasification is convincing people that it works on municipal waste. Right now, Japan is the only place in the world where that's being done. Steve Kluess, coordinator of the Duluth-based Laurentian Resource and Conservation Development, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been working with Coronal and Koochiching County. Kluess says the Japanese are operating three plasma gasification facilities that are producing clean energy from garbage. They're using technology developed by Westinghouse.
Kluess supports using International Falls as a demonstration site. Federal, state and local funds would pay for the facility and the county would own it. Kluess says he understands why some people are skeptical. But he believes plasma gasification is a process that can revolutionize the way U.S. communities deal with garbage.
"I've studied this for a couple of years here and I'm very, very much in favor of this happening," said Kluess. "I can see the potential nationwide, North America wide for that matter. 20 or 30 years from now, as more and more facilities go off line and tipping fees go up, you'll see that this will be the way that municipal solid waste will be disposed of and taken care of in this country."
Koochiching County seems an unlikely place to put a demo facility. It's geographically remote, sparsely populated and produces less garbage than its neighbors. But Kluess says economic conditions in the northeastern third of the state offer a perfect set of circumstances. Tipping fees in the region are among the highest in the state. Many counties are nearing the end of their waste contracts and are looking for cheaper alternatives.
John Howard, former energy researcher for Honeywell is now the chief technical officer for Twin Cities based Coronal, the company pushing the technology. Howard made pitches to other northeastern Minnesota communities, but Koochiching County was the only one interested in hosting a facility.
Howard says Koochiching County alone would not produce enough waste to make a plasma gasification plant work. But many neighboring counties and Canadian communities north of the border are interested in sending their garbage to International Falls. Howard says the rising cost of landfills and incinerators makes it the right time for the technology.
"The technology is scalable enough to come to a place like the Twin Cities and be economically viable," said Howard. "And that's what we're really trying to prove in International Falls, is to use that as a pilot for the rest of the nation. If we can make it work in International Falls, I can take this anywhere in the United States."
Howard says one of the key selling points of plasma gasification is that its good for the environment. He says emissions are far cleaner than those coming from incinerators.
But not everyone is buying Howard's pitch. Christopher Childs, with the Minnesota chapter of the Sierra Club is skeptical.
"If it sounds too good to be true it probably is," Childs said. "And that's pretty much how we would feel about these new versions of incineration."
Childs says there are a number of similar proposals around the country. Environmentalists have labeled them incinerators in disguise.
"The problem remains," said Childs, "that whenever you burn anything, and this is still burning no matter how sophisticated the style may be, you do get output from the stacks of the incinerator of some very nasty chemicals."
But proponents of the technology say those nasty chemicals -- things like dioxins and furans -- never have a chance to form in the gasification process.
Louis Circeo, director of the plasma research program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta has been researching plasma technology for 35 years. Circeo says gasification is much cleaner than incineration -- for some pollutants, hundreds of times cleaner. Circeo has visited one of the plants in Japan. He says it exceeds emissions standards set by the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. is not a part of.
"The emissions, we expect, would be similar to natural gas burning," said Circeo. "And in actual practice, in Japan, in our tests in the United States and at Georgia Tech, the emissions meet EPA criteria by a large margin."
Environmentalists worry that plasma gasification would discourage recycling because a facility would need to be fed more and more garbage to make money. Supporters of the International Falls project say recycling will be part of the process and will actually increase.
Some environmental groups contacted for this story declined to comment because they didn't know enough about the technology. Monica Wilson, with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives in Berkley, California, says environmentalists need to prepare themselves for a wave of proposals across the country. Wilson says she's not familiar with Coronal or details of the company's International Falls proposal. But she says it would be a mistake to rely solely on company data.
"Actually, when I first heard of this proposal in International Falls I was quite alarmed," said Wilson. "And I hope residents there get all the facts to make an informed decision, because we found a number of projects throughout the country being misrepresented by companies making claims that either could not be backed up, or were outright untrue."
Commissioner Mike Hanson says Koochiching County is moving ahead cautiously. A feasibility study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The plan would need approval from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. MPCA officials say they're interested in the new technology, but it's too early to tell whether it will meet environmental standards. If approved, a plasma gasification plant could be up and running in International Falls by fall of 2008.