making garbage go “poof” and understanding technology

What is society’s perception of technology? What does society see as technology?  What does society want to talk about?

Today, CBC’s “technology” segment on the local morning radio show discussed a new Facebook feature.  It sounded closer to social sciences and marketing than technology.  But, this is what many perceive as technology.  There is also a  fixation with “gee-whiz”.  There is perpetual interest in Mars colonies and zipping around in large vacuum tubes.  One might venture that society is most interested in the fantastical.  Why would this be the case?  Is society less interested in solving here-and-now problems?  Is there a  reduced appetite for real world technology developments.

Thinking about real world technology and the developments that might advance them is probably seen as daunting.  It is much easier to think about ideas from science fiction of yesteryear.  It may also be more likely to fund the latter.  But, can one approach an understanding of real world developments?  The answer is yes.

With ned being located in Ottawa I recently witnessed considerable press about plasma gasification.  There seemed to be plenty of people saying they did not understand the technology and thought (paraphrasing) it was all too fantastical to believe one could turn garbage into gas.  I even heard a city councillor say “make it go poof”.  I am not going to argue the merits of the technology or its application to municipal waste here.  Rather, I will argue that one can take steps towards understanding a technology, instead of slandering it or retreating to gee-whiz.

As I see it the premise behind plasma gasification is quite simple.  It is all about breaking bonds, in this case the chemical bonds of the constituents of garbage.  Think of the most abundant elements of the input.  At the moment let’s assume that metal, glass, paper, some organics and some plastic have been removed from the input and recycled.  There will still though be some of all of these and more, including wood.  Plastic is mostly made of carbon (C) and hydrogen (H).  There are of course other elements in there, but C and H would be the majors.  Organic material and paper would be quite a bit of C, H, nitrogen (N), and oxygen (O).  As an organic material, wood would also largely comprise those four elements.

The goal is to break the existing bonds between the elements of the input and liberate more fundamental elements or molecules.  The plasma provides the energy and conditions required to break the bonds of the input material and produce the desired output.  In this case the output is H and CO, which is commonly known as synthesis gas. It has considerable energy value and can then be used to generate power for the process.  Yes, there are plenty more details, but that is enough to say that you have a basic understanding of the goal. It is no longer fair to say it goes “poof”.

Technology is about the development of ideas.  It is about continuous work and refinement until feasibility and usability are achieved.  It is not a mystery.  It is a process that can be understood.  Technology can be understood once the proper tools are in place.  One can say technology should be approached with “a mind willing to understand”.