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Putting innovation into practice

Dr Tim Johnson, technical director at high temperature plasma arc technology manufacturer Tetronics, argues that plasma technology can be seen as a viable option for waste management.

We are often told by politicians and think-tank consultants that it is innovation that drives growth in jobs and in the economy. It is of course very easy to talk about such things and rather more difficult to implement them practically in the ‘real world’ but despite this you often hear the same commentators criticising sectors of UK business for not adopting this innovation culture.

Description: Dr Tim Johnson, technical director, Tetronics

Dr Tim Johnson, technical director, Tetronics

Now I am sure there are plenty of organisations across UK industry who struggle to put innovation into practice but you don’t have to read very far through the many magazines and publications of the environmental industry to see innovation in every nook and cranny. Maybe it’s because the environmental sector is growing strongly or perhaps it is the type of people it attracts but you certainly can’t accuse the waste management industry of lacking imagination or innovation.


Literally, ‘innovation’ means ‘making into new’ and naturally, innovation takes many forms. You have one group of people innovating new and exciting equipment with which to treat waste and others who are developing innovative ways of measuring, monitoring and analysing waste.

Meanwhile, there are whole groups of people finding innovative ways to cut corners on existing legislation and still more developing innovative new forms of legislation to try to close those loop holes and drive up standards of operating practice.

All this innovation is surely a sign of a vibrant and healthy industry and it’s certainly an exciting business to be involved with at the moment. However, all this ‘making into new’ does make for a constantly moving landscape with all its attendant uncertainties and if there a downside to innovation perhaps this is it. For the waste producer this means a lack of certainty about his future waste management requirements and these uncertainties are reflected in how well waste management companies can forecast the costs and the best methods for treating wastes both now and in the future.


In this context the challenge for companies that provide waste treatment equipment must surely be to help others to manage and reduce these uncertainties by developing technologies which combine the reassurance of a historical track record with a degree of future-proofing about them. Plasma technology is emerging as one such technology.

Plasma technologies have been used for many decades in a bewildering variety of industrial settings both inside and outside the environmental industry. It has its roots in welding, which is hardly space-craft technology, and combines intense heat and intense light in a highly directional and controllable arc that can be used to vaporise or melt virtually everything.

Having tried it myself I can say with confidence there are very few materials that do not respond well to this kind of formidable treatment and the ultimate outputs from plasma processes nearly always consist overwhelmingly of materials suitable for resale or reuse; i.e. it is a recovery based solution as opposed to just simple disposal. It seems highly unlikely that such a process will ever provide anything other than a top-quality solution to many of the key waste management challenges that face industry and society today and in the future.

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