In 1982, fresh out of Michigan Tech with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, Chris Nagel landed a job at U.S. Steel Corp.'s Gary (Ind.) Works. His assignment: explore the efficiency of energy utilization. The surroundings: less than idyllic. "My office," he recalls, "was sandwiched in between the blast furnace and the Q-BOP [furnaces]. And every day ~torpedo cars' on rails would pass by carrying hundreds of tons of hot metal." That workplace ambiance got him to thinking about the possibility of extracting energy from fiery-hot liquid metal to drive chemical reactions, such as thermally cracking water to form hydrogen gas. Then, in collaboration with Robert Bach, a consultant and professor at Wayne State University, Detroit, the young chemical engineer began to explore other uses for the thermal and catalytic properties of molten metal. Over the years that followed, a new technology evolved -- catalytic extraction processing (CEP) -- which promises to solve a wide range of hazardous- and toxic-waste-disposal problems in an economically feasible way. In the CEP process, which was successfully demonstrated this year in a commercial-scale facility, waste materials are injected into a bath of molten metal in a sealed closed-loop system. The catalytic properties of the liquid metal -- at temperatures in the 2,400 F to 3,200 F range -- cause the wastes to completely dissolve to their original atomic elements. Not only does the process destroy hazardous and toxic compounds but, by controlling process variables and adding reactant chemicals, it can rearrange the liberated atomic elements into recoverable products such as high-quality industrial gases, specialty inorganics, and metals. The concept is known as elemental recycling. Today, Dr. Christopher J. Nagel is senior vice president for science and technology at Molten Metal Technology Inc. (MMT), the Waltham, Mass.-based company that he and William M. Haney cofounded in 1989 to commercialize the CEP process. Mr. Haney, a 31-year-old entrepreneur with two earlier environmental-technology start-up companies to his credit, is president and CEO. (He met Dr. Nagel through the Office of Technology Licensing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, while Dr. Nagel was working on his doctorate at MIT.) Mr. Haney, who has served on the U.S. EPA's National Advisory Committee on Environmental Policy & Technology, saw exciting potential in Dr. Nagel's technology. "I was well aware," he says, "that the most pernicious of this country's environmental problems revolved around its waste-disposal questions; and that the classic, mildly evolutionary technological developments simply weren't getting us to where we wanted to be. "The opportunity that this technology promised -- to shift the paradigm entirely -- was really what grabbed me." Most traditional methods for disposing of hazardous wastes -- such as incineration and landfilling -- merely swap one environmental problem for another, creating air pollution or site contamination, as well as transportation and liability dilemmas. In contrast, the CEP technology transforms wastes into usable products, leaving virtually no residual material. "We see wastes, not in the classic regulatory and social context," says Mr. Haney, "but as compilations of valuable elements." Commercial-scale tests conducted at Molten Metal's 65,000-sq-ft Fall River, Mass., research/development facility have achieved 99.99999% conversion of wastes into usable materials -- such as high-purity hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon-monoxide gas. Other recoverables include calclum chloride and iron-nickel alloys. As envisioned by MMT executives, most applications of the CEP process will involve installations at industrial sites where the recovered materials can become raw-material feedstocks. The systems most likely will be configured to yield products that can be consumed on site. When the value of recovered materials is taken into account, the CEP approach is expected to reduce the cost of hazardous-waste disposal to about half the cost of incineration -- and without generating toxic air pollutants. Capital costs for a typical installation are pegged in the $15 million-to-$50 million range, depending on the volume and composition of the waste stream. Smaller-scale systems will be designed to handle about 5,000 tons of wastes per year. MMT also may operate a few centralized facilities to accommodate wastes from certain classes of smaller-quantity generators. Engineering and construction of CEP facilities will be carried out in partnership with Fluor Daniel Environmental Services, a division of Fluor Daniel Inc., the world's largest engineering and construction company. Initially, MMT's primary targets will be the chemical, petrochemical, and pharmaceutical industries. But its patented technology is believed to be applicable in recycling thousands of hazardous and nonhazardous materials, including post-consumer plastics. "If people are burning it or burying it today and aren't recovering any usable material from it, then it's a candidate application for our technology,' asserts Ian Yates, MMT'S vice president for market development. Moreover, the CEP process may offer a solution for the disposal of low-level radioactive wastes. Indeed, the U.S. Dept. of Energy is so intrigued by its potential that it has signed an agreement with MMT to fund an eight-year development effort, up to $200 million, to extend the reach of the technology to radioactive wastes. Catalytic extraction processing has almost-universal application, enthuses Maurice Strong, secretary general of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero and a member of the MMT board of directors. "It can literally revolutionize our ability to deal with toxic wastes."