Waste Management Inc. is teaming with a startup, InEnTec, to commercialize a technology that turns waste into energy.

The new joint venture, S4 Energy Solutions, which was unveiled late last month, will try to commercialize plasma gasification technology developed in the 1990s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The technology uses both traditional gasification and a high-temperature plasma arc to produce synthesis gas, which can replace natural gas in electricity generation and chemical production. The process also yields recyclable metal and a glass-like byproduct.

"[The joint venture will] bring together the infrastructure that Waste Management has," said Jeff Surma, CEO and president of S4. "It will bring the right waste mixture to facilities, and wrapping around the core InEnTec plasma technology, the rest of the system really makes the facility work. That's S4's unique position."

Joe Vaillancourt, senior vice president of S4, said other companies attempting to deploy similar technology have struggled to make it commercially viable. Projects announced so far have been slow out of the starting gate (ClimateWire, June 10, 2008).

The Waste Management-InEnTec partnership will do better, Vaillancourt said, because the trash giant adds front-end processing and preparation as well as its massive size, sound financial footing and "efficient national network of transportation."

Surma and Vaillancourt said the technology can handle all types of waste, but some can be processed more efficiently than others. Hazardous wastes, they say, are prime candidates for plasma gasification.

"For this sort of process to work, we're focusing on waste materials that have high value in energy content," Vaillancourt said. "Smaller, more segregated waste streams, when they're sorted and prepped, optimize energy production. ... Medical wastes, shredded autos, hazardous wastes are prime candidates."

The S4 technology is currently scaled to handle 25 tons a day, Surma said. That scale is small on residential or commercial waste fronts but "perfect" for regional medical-waste processing, he said. Eventually, the company plans to process 125 tons of waste a day.

Initially, S4 will cater to Waste Management, the officials said. But Vaillancourt said eventually a municipality or commercial operation could be interested in purchasing a plasma gasification system.

Jim Childress, executive director of the Gasification Technologies Council, said the partnership between Waste Management and InEnTec "says a lot."

"These are relatively small plants, but they do an important job," Childress said. "They allow either municipal governments ... or companies to take materials that are a problem and convert them to something of higher value -- either electricity or chemicals. As these technologies come to the market, I think we'll see -- and the marketplace will show -- that they're meeting a need and ... may provide solution."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500