It was a rainy morning when I pulled up to Startech R&D to see Longo waiting for me in the parking lot. Wearing a bright yellow oxford shirt, a striped tie and blue pinstriped pants, he dashed across the blacktop to greet me as I stepped from my rental car. A street-smart Brooklyn native, Longo was an only child raised by parents who worked long hours at a local factory that made baseballs and footballs. He volunteered to fight in Korea as a paratrooper after a friend was killed in action. He’s fond of antiquated slang like “attaboy” and “shills” (as in “those shills stole my patents”) and is old-school enough to have only recently abandoned the protractors, pencils and drafting tables that he used to design his original Plasma Converter in favor of computers.
Today, Longo is meeting with investors from U.S. Energy, a trio of veteran waste-disposal executives who recently formed a partnership to build the first plasma-gasification plant on Long Island, New York. They own a transfer station (where garbage goes for sorting en route to landfills) and are in the process of buying six Startech converters to handle 3,000 tons of construction debris a day trucked from sites around the state. “It’s mostly old tile, wood, nails, glass, metal and wire all mixed together,” one of the project’s partners, Troy Caruso, tells me. For the demonstration, Longo prepares a sampling of typical garbage—bottles of leftover prescription drugs, bits of fiberglass insulation, a half-empty can of Slim-Fast. A conveyer belt feeds the trash into an auger, which shreds and crushes it into pea-size morsels (that explains the deafening grinding sound) before stuffing it into the plasma-reactor chamber. The room is warm and humid, and a dull hum emanates from the machinery.
The converter we’re watching vaporize Slim-Fast is a mini version of Startech’s technology, capable of consuming five tons a day of solid waste, or about what 2,200 Americans toss in the trash every 24 hours. Fueled with garbage from the local dump, the converter is fired up whenever Longo pitches visiting clients.
Longo has been talking with the National Science Foundation about installing a system at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The Vietnamese government is considering buying one to get rid of stockpiles of Agent Orange that the U.S. military left behind after the war. Investors from China, Poland, Japan, Romania, Italy, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, the U.K., Mexico and Canada have all entered contract negotiations with Startech after making the pilgrimage to Bristol to see Longo’s dog-and-pony show.
Startech isn’t the only company using plasma to turn waste into a source of clean energy. A handful of start-ups—Geoplasma, Recovered Energy, PyroGenesis, EnviroArc and Plasco Energy, among others—have entered the market in the past decade. But Longo, who has worked in the garbage business for four decades, is perhaps the industry’s most passionate founding father. “What’s so devilishly wonderful about plasma gasification is that it’s completely circular,” he says. “It takes everything back to its fundamental components in a way that’s beautiful.” Although all plasma gasification systems recapture syngas to turn into fuel, Startech’s “Starcell” system seems to be ahead of the pack in its ability to economically convert the substance into eco-friendly and competitively priced fuels. “A lot of other gasification technologies require multiple steps. This is a one-step process,” says Patrick Davis of the U.S. Department of Energy’s office of hydrogen production and delivery, which has awarded Longo’s company almost $1 million in research grants. “You put the waste in the reactor and you get out the syngas. That’s it.”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.