WIDE-EYED dreamers have proposed all sorts of radical solutions to America's toxic-waste problem, ranging from shooting it into outer space to sinking it into the deepest ocean. A young company headquartered in Waltham, Mass., has a fundamentally more radical approach: Instead of treating or trying to store toxic wastes, why not recycle them?
Earlier this week, after six months of successful trials, Molten Metal Technology opened a research facility in this southern Massachusetts town that will conduct commercial-scale tests of its patented Catalytic Extraction Processing (CEP) technology.
CEP involves injecting toxic waste into a pool of about 1.5 tons of molten iron (at about 3000 degrees Fahrenheit). The toxic material breaks down into its constituent elements, which are then captured and reconstituted as useful products. Beating incineration
Compared with toxic waste incinerators, CEP is ``less expensive to build, less expensive to operate, and it takes a shorter period of time to secure [environmental] permits,'' says William Haney, the company's chairman and chief executive.
But Molten Metal Technology does not plan to build stand-alone recycling facilities. Custom-designed processes will be built for companies as the final step in a manufacturing process to ``close the loop'' by eliminating all waste products and returning useful raw materials to the factory.
By locating on a manufacturing site, wastes are not transported by truck or rail. On-site recycling also alleviates corporate liability concerns: If industrial byproducts are continuously recycled and reused, they elude classification as waste. The manufacturer avoids the long-term responsibilities that accrue through the statutes of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
At the launch of the new facility, Maurice Strong, secretary general of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and a member of MMT's board of directors, said that ``reinventing our industrial economy was the principal objective of Rio.... The development of Catalytic Extraction Processing [is] one of the most important and promising contributions to realizing the objectives of Rio.''
He and the assembled dignitaries, including Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R), Sens. John Kerry (D) of Mass. and John Chafee (R) of R.I. all described CEP in revolutionary terms.
In addition to applications for industry, the federal government sees many potential uses of CEP.
``The Department of Energy is the largest single polluter on the planet after the old Soviet Union,'' says Thomas Grumbly, assistant secretary for Environmental Restoration and Waste Management at DOE. He is responsible for a $6 billion budget aimed at cleaning up the defense weapons complex. He announced that DOE plans to contract with MMT for $200 million in R&D projects over seven years, though only $1.6 million has been locked in for 1994. ``Cleanup of defense weapons facilities will cost more than $200 billion over 25 years,'' Grumbly says. ``Technologies like CEP will drive down the cost.'' Several new approaches
In addition to molten metal processing, the DOE is actively pursuing other methods, including vitrification (locking wastes into stable glass structures), plasma arc treatment, and supercritical water oxidation.
MMT expects that petrochemical producers in Texas and Louisiana will be among the first industries to integrate CEP. When it is used to process refinery sludge, CEP would produce about:
* 5 to 10 percent metals that can be recovered for manufacturing of stainless steel.
* 35 to 40 percent ceramic material to be used as paving material or abrasives.
* 50 percent gas (hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen chloride) that can be immediately reused in the refinery process.
CEP has proven to be unsuitable for wastewater treatment because large volumes of water cool the molten iron, raising energy costs prohibitively. Processing weapons components and spent munitions will yield copper, aluminum, nickel, and precious metals, says Ian Yates, a MMT vice president. MMT expects to sell two or three commercial facilities by late 1994 and have them running by 1995.
Closed-loop recycling ``has the potential to transform how we look at environmental waste issues,'' says Governor Weld, who lauded the jobs MMT is creating in his state. ``Technology, combined with business acumen, makes this a good bet for the taxpayer,'' says Grumbly of DOE's contract with MMT.
Investors hope it works out for them as well. An initial public offering in February yielded $44.9 million. The stock which traded initially at $14 closed Tuesday at $23.75, down $1.50.