To many, the concept of plasma being used to transform waste into energy is science fiction. Yet one British company is using it to do just that.
Advanced Plasma Power (APP) has developed a process called Gasplasma, which combines gasification and plasma treatment to convert waste into two products: a hydrogen-rich synthesis gas and an inert product it calls Plasmarok. The firm says it has applications as a high value construction material.
According to the company, the process involves several steps. After waste has been processed to recover any materials that can be recycled, the remainder is turned into what APP calls a refuse derived fuel, or RDF.
A gasifier heats the RDF up and turns it into a "crude syngas", which is moved to a Gasplasma plasma conversion unit.
APP says that "intense heat from the plasma arc" – which is greater than 8,000 degrees centigrade – as well as intense ultraviolet light of the plasma results "in the complete cracking of tar substances and the breakdown of char materials."
The by-products of this cracking are a clean syngas and Plasmarok.
"Household waste, stuff that we throw away, commercial industrial waste, even nastier stuff – hazardous waste – can all be basically transformed," Rolf Stein, CEO of Advanced Plasma Power, told CNBC in a phone interview.
To give a few examples, wastes such as creosote, oils and sludge can be used in the process to produce energy.
According to the company, the process – which it says is modular and scalable – results in "minimal" emissions.
Stein added that one avenue that the company was pursuing was the conversion of the synthesis gas into advanced biofuels such as compressed bio methane.
"We've just won a grant from the U.K. government to demonstrate, at a commercial scale, the production of compressed bio methane to use as a vehicle fuel," he said.
In September, APP and its partners – National Grid, Progressive Energy and CNG Services – were awarded £11 million to design, develop and construct a plant which will turn household and business waste into compressed bio methane. The plant will make use of APP's Gasplasma process.
In a release, APP said that bio methane has the potential to slash carbon emissions from transport by 96 percent.
What though, is plasma? "It's often referred to as the fourth state of matter," Stein said. "So if you heat a solid you get a liquid, if you heat a liquid you get a gas, if you heat a gas you get a plasma." Stein went on to describe plasma as an, "ionized, electrically conductive gas."
Looking forward, Stein is optimistic about both the energy and fuel generation sides of the business.
"We are setting out to compete with fossil derived fuels rather than build a business around long term subsidies, and we can see that it's very much within reach."