The Mr. Fusion Era is nearly upon us! While our garbage can't power our time-travelling DeLoreans just yet, the Marine Corps' forward operating bases—in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan—could soon be powered by the refuse generated by their soldiers.
The system, dubbed the Micro Auto Gasification System (MAGS), was developed by by Terragon Environmental Technologies Inc in conjunction with the Office of Naval Research and uses a controlled pyrolysis process that feeds off of any organic fuel source—paper, cardboard, wood, plastic, chemicals, food, cloth; oils and grease; biological material; animal waste; agricultural waste; and sludge.
Pyrolysis occurs when organic compounds undergo anaerobic thermochemical decomposition—basically "burning" without the presence of oxygen—inside a sealed, 1300 degree F (750 degrees C) steel drum. These temperatures are sufficient to convert fuel into a gaseous mix of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane as well as an ash-like residue called char.
This all occurs without affecting inorganic waste like glass or metal—in fact, they're actually sterilized by the process and can be immediately recycled or reused. And, because the system doesn't involve actually combusting the fuel, both greenhouse gas emissions and smoke (which can betray a FOB's location) are kept to a minimum.
The MAGS system was originally developed for use aboard ships and is capable of reducing a 50-gallon trash bag filled with 100 pounds of garbage down to five pounds of solid waste—a reduction of 95 percent—in just two hours. The syngas produced can itself be reused as a fuel source to keep the MAGS system running, the char can be disposed of in a landfill and any excess heat from the process can be diverted towards warming barracks.
The Navy hopes to produce as much as half of its shore-based energy with alternative energy systems like MAGS by 2020. A prototype unit is currently being tested by U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific (MARFORPAC) in Hawaii and has, so far, been met with enthusiasm by soldiers in the field. [ONR - Tree Hugger - Popular Science - Gasification Wiki]