Stuff You Should Know | Podcast Review | October 26, 2015 | By

Stuff You Should Know: Please Listen to How Plasma Waste Converters Work

Let’s be honest: I was just thinking about Star Wars the whole time I wrote this.

On the spectrum of cheap and practical and vs. really cool but expensive futuristic stuff (think steel vs. graphene), this week’s topic takes us listener’s way over on the futuristic side of things. Airing this past Tuesday, a day after the final Star Wars trailer hit TV screens, it felt right that Josh and Chuck enlighten us about something that would fit right into George Lucas’ JJ Abrams’ universe. 1

I can easily get behind the idea that plasma-related technology is cool. 2 That’s a good start to begin learning new things about any topic. And I’m not afraid to admit that I actually knew almost nothing about plasma—other than it’s somehow both in your blood and is also a 4th state of matter. What the heck is plasma Chuck?

Thankfully Josh and Chuck’s friends at How Stuff Works : Plasma is an ionized gas; in other words, it’s a gas with free-roaming electrons that carries a current and generates a magnetic field. Sounds pretty dangerous to me. Is plasma even common in the real world outside of a government lab?

Ever hear about this stuff called lightning? That’s plasma! (I may not be directly quoting Josh, but read that line in his voice.) And plasma torches, in a simple sense, happen by basically just making lightning in a bottle. Super heating gas to several thousand Kelvin makes some funky things happen. 3

The applications could be huge. Josh and Chuck detail the potential for numerous uses, including the most common current one, nearly disintegrating garbage. 4 I swear,  Josh and Chuck will convincingly make you believe this to be much more exciting than it initially sounds.  Unfortunately, it’s not that widespread. We have it on some high tech ships and only a very select few plants across the entire globe.

So, why don’t we have this in our homes or at least our large cities? One reason—money! The scale for efficiency and cost-benefit isn’t there yet. Josh and Chuck explain further, and as they talk through this technology a little more, it really got me thinking about how science fiction this continues to sound. The fact that we’re even remotely close to being a viable process is incredible.

Given that high costs are often a limiting factor on scaling science and tech like this, I’d personally love to just throw money at a Kickstarter equivalent for futuristic science that has already taken off. Sort of like crowdfunded venture capital for scientific research. Maybe there’s something like this out there already and I just haven’t had the spark (yes that’s a pun) to go and check it out.

(pause for Googling)

Ok apparently there is! And it’s called 5

Stuff like plasma torches fascinates me. It’s the stuff we think will be in the future, that people used to write about in comic books. And on the scale from electric cars to graphene, who knows where this will land. For now, it’s unlikely you’ll see plasma waste converters anytime soon, but I doubt the most useful purpose for plasma torches will always be for torching garbage. It’s about as likely as fire only being used for candlelight or, you know, burning garbage.

It’s important to talk about these kinds of mildly unreasonable and excessive scientific solutions. We already have ways to get rid of garbage. But how do we do this better? I’ve digressed just a little bit from Josh and Chuck’s actual analysis about plasma torches, but I’d like to think they’d be ok with leading me on this wild rambling spree about science and remarkable new inventions. Because these kinds of things are really freaking cool. And I’d say that’s a pretty good qualification for it to be stuff you should know.

Vocal Fry and Other Speech Trends

Unfortunately, I like ran out of, like, enough words to, like, talk about Josh and Chuck’s other episode from this week? I highly recommend you tune in? They give some interesting background and nuggets of information?

  1. Lightsabers aren’t too far from plasma torches. Also there’s a 50/50 chance JJ kills off Jar Jar using a plasma torch. ^
  2. Yes, I have played Halo before. ^
  3. Do you know what happens when a toad is struck by lightning? ^
  4. It’s not actually disintegration,  sorry Boba Fett, but it’s pretty close. ^
  5. Also, this thread on Reddit. They seem to previously have been called and decided to up their domain name game. ^

About the Author

Nick Wade is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he writes about The Sporkful and Stuff  You Should Know. You can find him at

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