You know how all that plastic crap is piling up in our landfills and polluting our oceans? Well, ponder this potential breakthrough:
Student researchers at Northeastern University have designed an apparatus to convert plastic waste into clean energy without releasing harmful emissions....This is, in essence, a pollution-free way of turning all that otherwise immortal plastic crap into clean electricity. Think of this as the standard whenever you're temped to describe something as a win-win.
Self-sustainability is the key to the double-tank combustor design. Plastic waste is first processed in an upper tank through pyrolysis, which converts solid plastic into gas. Next, the gas flows to a lower tank, where it is burned with oxidants to generate heat and steam. The heat sustains the combustor while the steam can be used to generate electric power.
The morals of the story: First, it would be incredible if we could make this work. It's unclear if that will happen.
Second, I worry a lot about tipping points lurking in our our climate system. What if melting ice releases trapped carbon, accellerating the melting of the ice and so on? But it's also worth remembering that technological breakthroughs can transform a problem into a solution (or, in this case, a pollutant into clean fuel). The future will bring good surprises and bad; we just don't know the balance.
Image: Red Plastic Cup, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from spaztacular's photostream