InEnTec said a waste-recycling oven tested in Richland, Wash., has attracted $150 million from a private equity firm to build a plant for Dow Corning.

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The world’s economy may be going down the drain — but there’s a great future in garbage. Or so thinks Lakeside Energy — the Chicago investment firm that just committed $150 million to a joint venture with an Eastern Washington-bred company to build a massive facility that will melt waste and turn it into valuable chemicals.

InEnTec, headquartered in Bend, Ore., developed what it calls a Plasma Enhanced Melter, which turns trash into gas by applying sunlike temperatures. Out of it comes useful gases and products such as ethanol and glass.

A test model, looking somewhat like a miniature refinery, sits at InEnTec’s Richland facility, where the company also conducts research for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Other systems are being used around the world, mostly to make electricity out of industrial or medical waste. With Lakeside’s investment, the company says it will be able to build its first large-scale commercial plant dedicated to reprocessing chemical waste.

That facility will enable silicone maker Dow Corning to turn waste into chemicals it can reuse in its Midland, Mich., operations.

“We’re changing the paradigm. What we’re saying to chemical companies is that we take the waste, and, using our process, we’re converting those products into something you can use,” said Gary Cook, chief executive of InEnTec Chemical, the joint venture that will own the plant.

The deal stands out amid an increasingly hostile climate for so-called “clean tech” companies, especially those requiring massive investments to build infrastructure.

Tight credit markets make borrowing difficult, and falling oil prices are diminishing investors’ previous urge to jump in on the clean-tech bandwagon.

New York-based American Securities, a private-equity firm, backed Lakeside Energy’s investment. Construction in the new plant will begin in the fourth quarter.

Dow Corning has signed a 10-year contract with the joint venture to recycle its hazardous waste; instead of disposing of dangerous chemicals, the company can use the resulting compounds as raw material for chemical products, or it can burn one of them — a blend of hydrogen and carbon monoxide called synthesis gas — to power its facilities.

The plant will produce about 10 million pounds per year of hydrogen chloride and 11 million British Thermal Units per hour of synthesis gas. It will be operated by Veolia Environmental Services Technical Solutions.

InEnTec Chemical plans to break ground on a second plant in the southeastern U.S. in late 2009. A typical project costs $20 million to build, Cook said.

“We are enthusiastic about the business opportunities ahead,” Lakeside Energy Chief Executive William Johnson said in a statement. Lakeside has the funding commitment to turn InEnTec Chemical “into a $1 billion enterprise,” the statement said.

InEnTec’s concept has been demonstrated abroad. In 2003, Japanese manufacturer Kawasaki Heavy Industries bought an InEnTec system that’s used to get rid of organic compounds and asbestos.

The technology is based on work by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Richland-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. (Battelle, which runs the PNNL, is a shareholder of InEnTec.)

Waste is dropped into a chamber containing a bath of molten glass and ultrahot plasma. The unwanted stuff ends up reduced to its most basic elements, which are then recomposed into useful alloys and gases.

InEnTec says pretty much anything can be subjected to the process — from municipal waste to medical and industrial residue.

Ángel González: 206-515-5644 or agonzalez@seattletimes.com