It sounds as if someone just dropped a tricycle into a meat grinder. I’m sitting inside a narrow conference room at a research facility in Bristol, Connecticut, chatting with Joseph Longo, the founder and CEO of Startech Environmental Corporation. As we munch on takeout Subway sandwiches, a plate-glass window is the only thing separating us from the adjacent lab, which contains a glowing caldera of “plasma” three times as hot as the surface of the sun. Every few minutes there’s a horrific clanking noise—grinding followed by a thunderous voomp, like the sound a gas barbecue makes when it first ignites.
“Is it supposed to do that?” I ask Longo nervously. “Yup,” he says. “That’s normal.”
Despite his 74 years, Longo bears an unnerving resemblance to the longtime cover boy of Mad magazine, Alfred E. Neuman, who shrugs off nuclear Armageddon with the glib catchphrase “What, me worry?” Both share red hair, a smattering of freckles and a toothy grin. When such a man tells me I’m perfectly safe from a 30,000˚F arc of man-made lightning heating a vat of plasma that his employees are “controlling” in the next room—well, I’m not completely reassured.
To put me at ease, Longo calls in David Lynch, who manages the demonstration facility. “There’s no flame or fire inside. It’s just electricity,” Lynch assures me of the multimillion-dollar system that took Longo almost two decades to design and build. Then the two usher me into the lab, where the gleaming 15-foot-tall machine they’ve named the Plasma Converter stands in the center of the room. The entire thing takes up about as much space as a two-car garage, surprisingly compact for a machine that can consume nearly any type of waste—from dirty diapers to chemical weapons—by annihilating toxic materials in a process as old as the universe itself.single page