Think about your answer because this alternative energy source exists right now. A flagship plant has been operating for the last few years in Utashinai, Japan. And another one is slated for completion by 2009 in Saint Lucie County, Florida.
Atlanta based, Geoplasma, expects to generate 160 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 36,000 homes. And where does the garbage come in, you ask?
Here is the process in a nutshell. The new plant is being built next to an existing landfill sight. They will process 3,000 tons of trash from the landfill and surrounding sources. The garbage is fed into an auger, a machine which shreds it into smaller pieces. These are then fed into a plasma chamber - a sealed, stainless steel vessel filled with either nitrogen or ordinary air. A 650-volt electrical current is passed between two electrodes; this rips electrons from the air and creates plasma.
A constant flow of electricity through the plasma maintains a field of extremely intense energy powerful enough to disintegrate the shredded garbage into its component elements. The byproducts are a glass-like substance used as raw materials for high-strength asphalt or household tiles and "syngas".
Syngas is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and it can be converted into fuels such as hydrogen, natural gas or ethanol. Syngas (which leaves the converter at a temperature of around 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit) is fed into a cooling system which generates steam. This steam is used to drive turbines which produce electricity - part of which is used to power the converter, while the rest can be used for the plant's heating or electrical needs, or sold back to the utility grid.
The advantages with Plasma Gasification are obvious. Existing landfills would be eaten away to produce much needed energy. The land could then be reclaimed for animal habitation. And at the rate that US citizens produce garbage we would have an endless source of energy without having to drill into the Earth or strip forests and take the tops of mountains looking for coal.
It sounds like the ultimate in recycling and sustainability. I plan to look for future information on the Florida plant and keep an eye on the advancements. I’m wondering about the carbon emissions. I can’t find anything to indicate if they plan to use carbon sequestration. I’ll update everyone if I find anything. In the meantime, here is a list of informative articles on the subject.
http://www.tech-faq.com/plasma-gasification.shtml, Tech-faq deserves credit for the section explaining plasma gasification.