Electrifying Research Destroys Pollutants That Cause Smog

Article excerpt

Cars aren't the only things that cause smog and urban pollution. So do industrial plants and hazardous-waste dumps.

For years, researchers have worked on ways to reduce the smog-inducing gases spewing from plants and dumps. They've burned them, filtered them, even used platinum and other expensive catalysts to turn them into more benign substances. Louis Rosocha of the Los Alamos National Laboratory thinks he has a better idea.

He electrifies them.

If he's right, engineers could soon have a new way to handle problematic gases that is cheaper than filtering or catalytic conversion and creates fewer environmental problems than incineration. The process is called plasma technology. This plasma is an electrically charged gas cloud, not the gooey stuff of science fiction movies.

Actually, its formal name is nonthermal plasma technology, because it uses electricity instead of heat to work its magic. Similar processes are being tested abroad to control sulfur- and nitrogen-oxide emissions from industrial plants, the gases that can lead to smog and acid rain. At Los Alamos, Dr. Rosocha is using it on volatile organic compounds or VOCs, which are hazardous air pollutants in their own right and can lead to smog and acid rain.

Last November, scientists at the lab and their industrial partner, High Mesa Technologies in Santa Fe, N.M., set up an instrument-filled trailer at a contaminated site at McClellan Air Force Base in California. The 40-year-old site had been a dumping ground for gasoline and various industrial solvents.

For two months, the Los Alamos scientists used their plasma technology to see how well it could clean up the fumes.

The results were impressive. Their system destroyed 95 percent of the average VOC gas. The level of destruction reached 99.9 percent for trichloroethelyne (or TCE, a dry-cleaning fluid).

In March, the researchers moved their system to another contaminated site at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. …