ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga.: Engineers here could soon be using an emerging technology to help clean the environment and save the Air Force money.

Officials with the Robins Air Force Base Energy Office are conducting feasibility studies on the use of plasma arc technology, which offers environmentally safe measures for waste disposal.

“The process can take nearly any material and convert it to energy,” said Judith Middlebrooks, an engineer with the Energy Office. “It uses extremely high temperatures to turn products into mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Plastics are really great, but most any organic compound will work.”

Base officials believe the technology could yield savings in the long term. They’ve also begun discussions with manufacturers who are on the leading edge of the technology.

“We are currently just gathering information to see what is possible,” Ms. Middlebrooks said.

The base currently spends more than $2 million annually to dispose of approximately 6,500 tons of waste, according to Susan Green, the solid waste program manager in the 78th Civil Engineer Group Environmental Management Office.
The waste includes non-recyclables, non-hazardous solid waste and hazardous solid waste. It also includes disposable construction debris.

The plasma arc technology could help the base reduce the amount it pays each year for waste disposal, and would likely yield clean energy, or elements, the base could use or reuse elsewhere. One possible element is synthetic gas, which the base could use to power things such as heating and cooling systems, generators, and some vehicles. One is a compound which could be used in the construction of some roads and buildings.

The technology is promising, Ms. Middlebrooks said.

“Plasma arc is fascinating,” she said. “It could also help us reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, reduce pollutant emissions and reduce landfill space.”

The technology is being tested at various locations in the U.S., including St. Lucie County in Florida. County officials have teamed with engineers to develop the nation’s first large plasma gasification plant, which has the potential to generate enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.

The technology has been used sparingly for about 10 years in Europe and Japan.

Robins AFB officials started evaluating the technology as a way to help waste reduction efforts here after learning about it from another base, according to Nancy Manley, the director of the 78th Civil Engineer Group’s Asset Management Division.

Base officials have since learned if the technology is used here, Robins could produce more energy than the amount of energy it would cost to operate the system.

“It certainly looks exciting at this time,” Ms. Manley said.