InEnTec’s Plasma Enhanced Melter® (PEM® ) System has its origins in many decades of work in the development of two different technologies – plasma technology and glass melter technology. By integrating these two technologies in a very special way, InEnTec has created a revolutionary concept that provides the ultimate capability in converting waste into useful products, maximizing the potential for recycling. The InEnTec technology builds upon extensive U.S. Department of Energy sponsored research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The combined research funds expended on these technologies was well over $300 million.
Plasmas are electrically conducting gases. Because of their special properties, they are often referred to as the fourth state of matter. Plasmas exist over a wide range of temperatures but are generally hotter than 5,000 °C. Plasmas that are familiar to the average person include lightning bolts and electric arc furnaces used for steel making. The sun and the stars are also plasmas, producing their power at very high temperatures by thermonuclear fusion; in fact, most of the universe consists of plasmas.
At MIT, plasma applications have been investigated extensively at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), MIT’s largest on-campus laboratory. In 1991, the PSFC undertook a research program to investigate the use of plasmas for treatment of radioactive waste at United States Department of Energy sites. The high temperature of plasmas and their ability to treat waste without the adverse environmental effects encountered in incineration made plasma technology a very attractive area for investigation. MIT, together with an industrial subcontractor, formed a collaborative effort with PNNL. PNNL is considered one of the world leaders in waste treatment technology because of its work as the research and development laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy Hanford site in Richland, Washington. The Hanford site is one of the major Department of Energy sites in America.
The MIT – PNNL effort constructed a research device at MIT for studies of plasma-arc waste treatment. The system employed a single graphite electrode and was used for a variety of tests that confirmed the basic attractiveness of plasmas for treating mixtures of radioactive and hazardous waste. In 1995, this research program was evaluated by the Department of Energy, which concluded that the graphite electrode DC arc-plasma system was the most promising approach for meeting its needs to treat mixtures of hazardous and radioactive waste.
Encouraged by the progress of the government-sponsored program, the principals of the program – Dr. Daniel R. Cohn of MIT, Jeffrey E. Surma of PNNL and Charles H. Titus, who had been with General Electric Company and was a consultant to MIT – began to devise ways to improve the plasma waste treatment process to make it applicable to all types of waste including medical waste, tires, hazardous wastes and municipal waste. Dr. Cohn, Mr. Surma and Mr. Titus developed a concept for integrating the plasma technology with glass melter technology, which had been successfully developed for treatment of the most dangerous (high level) radioactive wastes.
However, instead of a single graphite electrode, they developed a concept for combining a unique configuration of multiple plasma electrodes, which would provide radiant heating and other electrodes submerged in a molten glass bath, which would provide resistive heating to keep the bath molten. The system provided optimized electrical heating with exceptional process control. This powerful basic concept was further developed and became the earliest element of InEnTec’s proprietary PEM System.
Since this new approach represented a major advance and could provide the ultimate in waste treatment, the inventors began to look for ways to commercialize the technology and teamed with Larry Dinkin, a highly successful entrepreneur and investor, whom Dr. Cohn had known for some time. The group (Dr. Cohn, Messrs. Titus, Surma and Dinkin) founded Integrated Environmental Technologies, later renamed InEnTec, in July 1995, granting it exclusive rights to the PEM technology. In 1996, InEnTec opened its Technology Center in Richland, Washington, where development efforts have led to the successful commercialization and deployment of numerous PEM systems around the world.