To my knowledge, any substance when heated up enough to the point of a plasma should completely break any molecular bonds, since the electrons are no longer bound to the atoms. So a molecule like a hydrocarbon should, at plasma temperatures, completely break apart into carbon nuclei, hydrogen nuclei, and a sea of electrons, since the concept of molecules just doesn't exist at those temperatures. We can then use magnetic fields in order to attract the plasma towards a horizontal plate, then apply a strong magnetic field in order to separate everything out. Since we know due to the atomic mass exactly how much a carbon nucleus would bend it's path, exactly how much hydrogen would bend it's path (Relatively a lot more than carbon due to it's much lesser mass), and also the same for electrons, which should bend quite significantly, if in the other direction since it's reversed charge.

So, could we not take a handful of unwanted trash, heat it up to the point of everything becoming a plasma (Hydrocarbons, radioactive materials, toxic materials, etc all turned to this plasma), and then take the massive mixture of elements and feed it through a magnetic seperator in order to get out clumps of pure carbon (Either in the form of coal, diamonds, or some other form), oxygen (Which should form either ozone or oxygen gas), nitrogen gas, phosperous, sulphur, etc once it all cools down?

I don't see why such a thing couldn't work (Albeit taking a metric ton of energy in order to do so). It could be a completely overkill way to recycle any form of trash at all, and recycle it directly back into it's atomic components. Isotopes would obviously be a pain to work with since many isotopes have very similiar masses and charges (Causing the bending through the magnetic plates to have almost the exact same effect to the exact same intensity), but I see this as a completely overkill "Recycle anything" solution.

So would such an idea work, or am I missing something obvious?

  • $\begingroup$ So basically plasma gasification? $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Jul 28, 2022 at 11:59
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Yes, it is doable as demonstrated by Calutrons. Energy inefficient to be sure. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 28, 2022 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ If energy consumption was not an issue, yes this would be possible, of course. $\endgroup$ Jul 28, 2022 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ This was proposed over half a century ago (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fusion_torch). Not very practical. $\endgroup$
    – John Doty
    Jul 28, 2022 at 14:29

1 Answer 1


You appear to be describing a mass spectrometer, a device that heats materials to a plasma and separates them into parts of different charge/mass ratio to identify them. Mass spectrometers are normally designed to process only very tiny quantities, but I understand the same principle has been proposed for large-scale separation of Uranium isotopes for bomb making, a device called a calutron.

Such a device would be physically possible, but ridiculously uneconomic for the purpose of trash recycling.


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