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MIT Hazardous Waste Detector May Allow Instant Control of Industrial, Power Plant Emissions

Plutonium, difficult to monitor, is detected in test at Hanford, Wash.
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--MIT engineers believe a new hazardous waste detector, when combined with feedback technology, may allow instant control of hazardous waste emissions from incinerators, power plants and manufacturing plants.

"The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is going to regulate hazardous emissions more strictly, and presently there is no commercially-available way to detect them in real time," said Paul P. Woskov, principal research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Plasma Fusion Center and a principal inventor of the new detector.

"In an incinerator or glassification process, a continuous emission monitor system could detect the hazardous byproducts and a feedback system could automatically regulate the furnace to decrease them," said Daniel R. Cohn, director of the MIT Plasma Fusion Center program to devise new ways to treat hazardous wastes.

Woskov and Cohn were elated after a test late in August at the Hanford, Wash. nuclear reservation showed the device was able to detect all forms of plutonium, as well as other hazardous metals. Currently, some forms of plutonium are very difficult to detect in glassification process waste streams because they are not strongly radioactive and are below the detection levels of radiation monitors.

The researchers have already shown that the same device is able to detect the EPA's top ten most hazardous metals in incinerator waste streams. The emissions monitoring device can detect these metals at a sensitivity of one part per billion or less in a laboratory environment.

"We expect, based on the other metals that we have tested, that plutonium will fall in the same ballpark of sensitivity," Woskov said.

The latest test, at the Department of Energy site in Hanford, involved using a spectrometer, which measures the spectrum of colors of elements.

When David Rhee, the MIT research scientist performing the measurement, saw the spectrometer peak at the distinctive ultraviolet wave length of plutonium, he knew the test was successful.

The detector is derived from MIT basic research into fusion energy. The device and its inventors received an R&D 100 award this week, given by R&D Magazine. Last year, the same MIT fusion researchers won an R&D 100 award for inventing a special thermometer capable of remotely measuring surface temperatures up to 20,000 degrees Celsius in the smoky, hostile environment of a furnace. The thermometer can be used in a variety of waste treatment furnaces and other types of furnaces. It is also being studied for use in the industrial manufacturing of metals and other materials.

The hazardous waste detector, officially known as the "microwave plasma continuous emission monitor," was developed in collaboration with national laboratory personnel and industry. Project leaders are Woskov of MIT and Jeffrey E. Surma of the Pacific Northwest Laboratories at Richland, Wash., who worked in conjunction with Charles H. Titus of T&R Associates of Wayne, Pa. The invention, by Woskov, Cohn, Surma and Titus, is available for licensing from the MIT Technology Licensing Office.

The work is funded by the Department of Energy's Landfill Stabilization Focus Area.

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