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Man-made lightning searing at up to 18,000 degrees can turn toxic and municipal wastes into harmless blocks of glass at a fraction of the cost of current disposal techniques, MIT researchers say.

The process could transform much of the nation's garbage and poisonous wastes into paving material, the researchers said at a meeting here of physicists.Artificial lightning bolts arcing across a nitrogen-filled furnace chamber create a superheated plasma that "will melt just about anything" and neutralize molecules of highly toxic chemicals, David R. Cohn, a researcher at the plasma physics laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Friday.

Cohn, speaking at the national meeting of the American Physical Society here, said the electrical charge in the powerful heat of the furnace "is like a sledgehammer that can take virtually any material and turn it into a neutral substance."

Toxic chemicals he said, "are blown apart by the high temperatures, and the atoms recombine into simpler and less toxic and more manageable molecules."

Gas waste from the process is about a tenth of that from conventional incinerators, he said.

Since the process occurs in a nitrogen-filled furnace and in the absence of oxygen, said Cohn, the plasma furnace does not create new toxic chemicals, such as dioxins, as do some current techniques of waste processing.