“The Prophet of Garbage”

by kris bishop on October 14, 2008

Startech_photopreview 

by Guest Blogger, author Michael Behar.

In early 2006, I got a press release in my email inbox touting a new technology that could turn garbage into energy. The public relations firm that wrote it said their client, a quirky inventor named Joseph Longo, had invented a machine that could devour virtually any type of waste and from it produce electricity. My first question: Was this a hoax? When I Googled it, Longo’s company, Startech Environmental Corporation, turned up suspiciously few hits. I told my editor at Popular Science about Longo and his so-called “plasma converter” energy machine. He, too, was suspect. For the next four months, I tried to reach Longo by telephone and email but got no response. I was certain the pitch had been a ruse and that Longo was selling vaporware. Then my phone rang: “Hi, this is Joe Longo. What do you want to know about my plasma converter?”


We talked for nearly an hour. He was gruff, tightlipped, and wary. But I managed to learn that Longo was a Korean War vet, an engineer, and a serial entrepreneur responsible for designing, among other things, nuclear missile silos and the world’s first commercial trash compactor. Still, when I pressed him to explain exactly how he produced electricity from incinerating dirty diapers, he was cagey and vague—as if he thought a rival might be eavesdropping on our call. I got enough fodder, however, to garner a writing assignment, and a few weeks later I was on a plane headed for Connecticut to meet with Longo at Startech’s R&D lab in  Bristol. Experience told me that Longo wouldn’t have a working prototype. There would be pretty concept drawings and a polished PowerPoint presentation but nothing more. It’s a tactic I’d seen with other would-be inventors: Get press coverage to legitimize your idea and subsequently attract funding from private investors. Then I arrived at Longo’s warehouse-sized lab. He flung open a heavy fire door and introduced me to his plasma converter—a 20-foot-tall steel beast, which, at the moment, was gobbling up a pile of discarded cell phones in a vat of 30,000°F superheated gas. The byproduct: a steady stream of methane and hydrogen that could be used to power a turbine for generating electricity. Longo was legit … and so began my odyssey into the realm of plasma energy.

                                      –Michael Behar

Behar’s article profiling Joseph Longo and the Startech Environmental Corporation was included in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, edited by Clive Thompson.  To read more about this title, visit our website:   

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The Best of Technology Writing is part of The Digital Culture Series, a joint imprint of the University of Michigan Press and the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library.  All books are available for free online and for sale in print.

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