Plasma isn’t perfect. The toxic heavy metals sequestered in slag pass the Environmental Protection Agency’s leachability standards (and have been used in construction for years in Japan and France) but still give pause to communities considering building the plants. And although syngas-generated electricity has an undeniably smaller carbon footprint than coal—“For every ton of trash you process with plasma, you reduce the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere by about two tons,” Circeo says—it is still a net contributor of greenhouse gases.
“It is too good to be true,” Circeo admits, “but the EPA has estimated that if all the municipal solid waste in the U.S. were processed with plasma to make electricity, we could produce between 5 and 8 percent of our total electrical needs—equivalent to about 25 nuclear power plants or all of our current hydropower output.” With the U.S. expected to generate a million tons of garbage every day by 2020, using plasma to reclaim some of that energy could be too important to pass up.
More Ideas to watch
By John Pavlus
Cement as a Carbon Sponge
Traditional cement production creates at least 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, but new materials could create carbon-neutral cement. Start-up Novacem, supported by Imperial College London, uses magnesium oxide to make cement that naturally absorbs CO2 as it hardens. California-based Calera uses seawater to sequester carbon emissions from a nearby power plant in cement.
The New Honeybee
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) has killed more than a third of honeybee colonies since 2006. Farmers who depend on bees to pollinate such crops as almonds, peaches and apples are looking to the blue orchard bee to pick up the slack.
One efficient Osmia lignaria can pollinate as much territory as 50 honeybees, but the bees are harder to cultivate because of their solitary nature. These pinch hitters won’t completely replace honeybees, but as scientists continue to grapple with CCD, they could act as an agricultural safety net.
As the world’s freshwater supply becomes scarcer and food production needs balloon, salt-tolerant crops could ease the burden. Researchers at Australia’s University of Adelaide used genetic engineering to enhance a model crop’s natural ability to prevent saline buildup in its leaves, allowing the plant to thrive in conditions that would typically wither it. If the same gene tweak works in cereal crops such as rice and wheat—the researchers are testing them now—fallow lands destroyed by drought or overirrigation could become new breadbaskets.
The Omnipotence Machines
Tiny, ubiquitous sensors will allow us to index the physical world the way the Web maps cyberspace
By Gregory Mone
Earlier this year Hewlett-Packard announced the launch of its Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) project, a 10-year effort to embed up to a trillion pushpin-size sensors across the planet. Technologists say that the information gathered by this kind of ubiquitous sensing network could change our knowledge of the world as profoundly as the Internet has changed business. “People had no idea the Web was coming,” says technology forecaster Paul Saffo. “We are at that moment now with ubiquitous sensing. There is quite an astonishing revolution just around the corner.”
The spread of versatile sensors, or “motes,” and the ability of computers to analyze and either recommend or initiate responses to the data they generate, will not merely enhance our understanding of nature. It could lead to buildings that manage their own energy use, bridges that flag engineers when in need of repair, cars that track traffic patterns and detect potholes, and home security systems that distinguish between the footfalls of an intruder and the dog, to name a few.