Torch Song

COO Gillian Holcroft in the company’s Technology Demonstration Facility in Montréal.

Plasma-torch manufacturer PyroGenesis has evolved to meet the opportunities in new markets

Wouldn’t it be easier if we could take all our waste and hurl it into the sun? Just burn up all the potential landfill and pollutants that would otherwise leak into the water table? Well, until technology makes this Futurama-esque proposal cheaper and a lot more feasible, the world has PyroGenesis Canada Inc. and its plasma waste-to-energy systems.

PyroGenesis was founded in 1992, and began life as a plasma-torch manufacturer. Plasma is the fourth state of matter, occurring when molecules are heated to such an extent that they become an ionized gas. Everyday examples of plasma include the sun and lightning. Heating the core of a PyroGenesis plasma torch to such a state—which gets as hot as 10,000 degrees Celsius—requires tremendous amounts of energy, but the company uses no fossil fuels, instead relying on electricity and gas.

In the late 1990s, PyroGenesis teamed up with the US military to use its plasma technology to destroy hazardous waste (previously, the company’s torches were employed for advanced material development and thermal coating). PyroGenesis decided to expand its remit from manufacturer to engineering company, and worked closely alongside the US Navy for 10 years to develop a plasma waste-disposal system that would be compact enough for installation aboard aircraft carriers.

At the same time, PyroGenesis was developing plasma technology for land-based use. The systems were designed so that they could be energy efficient and run at the lowest possible cost. Following 15 years of development and assistance from Canadian government research investment, PyroGenesis sold its first land-based plasma waste-to-energy system to the University of Athens in early 2000, installed a two-tonne-per-day unit in Montréal three years later, and in 2008 sold a 10-tonne-per-day commercial version to the US Air Force.

Plasma is superior when compared to other waste-management systems, as it can handle any kind of waste. “Landfill as a method for waste disposal brings with it the whole legacy issue, with the potential liability of pollutants draining into the water table [and] greenhouse-gas emissions from the decomposition of the waste,” says Gillian Holcroft, COO. “Compare plasma to incineration, and plasma can take hazardous and nonhazardous waste, and doesn’t generate harmful by-products. Although incineration is cleaner than it used to be, you’re still left with waste at the end in the form of fly ash and bottom ash.”

An incinerator, which acts like a large fireplace, is another common form of waste management, but again it is inferior to plasma technologies. Incinerators are only 25 percent energy efficient, whereas plasma is 40–45 percent efficient through gasification using an internal-combustion engine. “It’s just a cleaner, more efficient technology,” Holcroft says.

As such, there’s huge market potential for plasma. Such systems could provide a more decentralized approach to waste management since they are efficient at a smaller scale, with 100-tonne-per-day systems able to treat waste for around 16,000 homes. That’s a reduction in the energy bill of about 15 percent. Holcroft admits that the capital and operating costs of a plasma system are comparable to incineration. However, plasma’s added benefits—notably that it creates more electricity to sell back to the grid and provides recovered slag that can be sold as a construction material or as metal to a recycler—help it surpass the competition.

“For now, people want to see more plants in operation and see the technology work as advertised,” Holcroft says. “And we have an advantage in that we have a reference plant working at a US air base.”

PyroGenesis’s evolution as a company provides another key advantage. The company offers a complete package, with the ability to develop, design, and manufacture plasma systems entirely on its own. Since the company has been working on developing smaller systems for ships, it also has a lead in creating small-scale systems. “Making something work on a small scale is not as technically obvious and economically viable as making something work at a larger scale,” Holcroft says. “Because we’ve been successful in this, our target market in the short to medium term is for the 100-tonne-per-day and smaller systems: hospitals, airports, smaller communities, marine vessels, and military bases. But our technology is very scalable, so we will eventually scale up to address larger requirements.”

PyroGenesis went public in 2011, and has just recently completed a new patent for a system that can even destroy refrigerants. All in all, the company’s results are worth tracking—and far better than hurling refrigerators into the sun.