Pyrogenesis, or plasma gasification, is an extreme thermal process that converts organic matter into synthetic gas made up of hydrogen and oxygen. It is used commercially as a form of waste treatment and has been used to process municipal solid waste, biomass, industrial waste, hazardous waste, and solid hydrocarbons like coal, oil sands, petcock, and oil shale.1
PyroGenesis Canada Inc., a Canadian engineering and manufacturing company, is the inventor of plasma atomization. The company first began using this technology for the biomedical industry in 2001. Later, it started producing powders for the additive manufacturing industry and waste management processes for commercial uses. PyroGenesis Canada Inc patents their technology, is ISO 9001:2008 certified and publicly trades on the TSX Venture Exchange.
The plasma gasification process was first adapted for the waste management industry in 1999 when a compact system to treat combustible solid waste was designed for US Navy aircraft carriers. This solution was again developed by PyroGenesis Canada Inc., enabling ships to handle their own waste processing and avoid polluting the oceans.2
Pyrogenesis refers to plasma-based processes. Plasma is the fourth state of matter, in the same group as solids, liquids, and gases. Basically, if you heat up gas, it becomes plasma.3 With plasma, you can explain the sun and lightning. Now, this process is being used in waste to energy applications, 3D printing industry, and plasma torch technology.
Pyrogenesis in the waste management industry
The waste to energy application is the most commercial use of the technology. The technology was developed under the Marine Plasma Arc Waste Destruction System as a compact, easy to use, high-temperature plasma-based waste treatment system for paper, plastics, food, oily rags and waste oil, with minimum segregation. Growing from an purely military use, the technology has spread into commercial applications.
Pyrogenesis Canada Inc signed a cooperation agreement with a Japanese engineering company to produce plasma waste processing systems in the Japanese market. In addition, there are private contracts for 50 waste treatment systems for hospitals, waste management streams, and mobile systems. The technology also exists to destroy ozone-depleting substances such as end-of-life refrigerants, CFCs, HCFs and HFCs which have a high global warming effect.
While these strides are significant, the technology is not being widely used at the moment. The high cost of the technology makes it prohibitive. The high cost of the technology is compounded by permitting issues, because of the new application creates novelty under local regulations. Governments do not know enough about the technology to understand or license its use. This makes its implementation require a complicated stage of government lobbying and public entity education in order to gain the required support.
The patented technology of plasma atomization is owned by PyroGenesis Canada Inc, and the technology is not yet open source. This means that clients have to be willing and able to invest in the technology in order to roll out the waste-to-energy plant. For now, investing in a plasma atomization line is not commercially viable, unless a government writes off portions of the project in the interest of environmental protection.
Pyrogenesis is also not too attractive to governments because there is a large initial investment required when you compare it with alternatives, including landfill. The operational cost is also high relative to incineration, with a low rate of net energy production. 4
Nevertheless, the advantages of the system can also be considered attractive to governments who are overseeing increasingly environmentally aware citizens. The advantages include the clean destruction of hazardous waste, the prevention of toxic waste from reaching landfills, processing of organic waste into combustible syngas for electric power and thermal energy, safe disposal of medical waste, and a cleaner air emission rate than landfills and other types of incinerators. 5
Dangers of pyrogenesis
In atomizing toxic and hazardous waste products, there is obviously a risk posed by the fumes emitted during the process. That is why waste-to-energy plants are designed as closed-loop systems that do not allow toxins to escape into the environment. An appropriate air pollution control system is required. 6
The plasma process results in very high temperatures that can make the extracted air volume excessively hot. Even this heat can be a threat to the environment and has to be managed with a secondary equipment line.
Another threat to manage during the plasma process is the residual waste. Many metals may be present in the waste material that can cause damage to human health. For example, iron, copper, zinc, nickel, manganese aluminum, tin, beryllium, cadmium, lead, and titanium can cause irritation to eyes, nose, and throat. Cadmium is additionally a cancer-causing agent. Lead and manganese can actually damage nerves and the brain.
During the smelting of metals, there is a residual waste material present, which is called dross. This is a waste product that must be captured during the atomization process. It is possible to capture precious metals using various techniques. For example, aluminum recovery is carried out by trading the dross at a high temperature. Zinc dross is crushed in a ball mill and then sieved to separate the coarse metal form the fine oxide. 7
Most of the dross treatment methods are inefficient and environmentally unacceptable because of salt slag and CO2 production. However, there are some developing technologies to make this process more efficient in the future. 8
Clearly, for economic reasons, the recovery of metal from the dross of non-ferrous metal is desirable. The current waste in metal and energy can be avoided by using various technologies adapted for the purpose. 9
Pyrogenesis – a technology of the future?
There are still too few plants, and too many protections on the patents, to offer public tours for pyrogenesis and plasma atomization plants. However, the technology is actively rolling out in Canada, US, Asia, and Europe. With the spread of the technology and continued partnerships with local governments, the adoption of the technology will become more widespread than it currently is.
Pyrogenesis is a technology of the future in that it uses the sun’s energy to create solutions for waste management, 3D printing, oil and gas industry, mining and metallurgy. Large-scale adoption of this technology is expected. However, various barriers for full-scale adoption still remain, including the high cost of the technology, its current commercial non-viability for waste-to-energy applications and the unknown nature of the technology which attracts delays in permitting new projects.