There are two ways to look at refuse. One is to be upset that there is so much of it; the other to look for ways to use it to our advantage.
Six years ago Apurva Maheshwary, a former lead process engineer for BOC Group (now part of the Germany-based Linde Group, an environmental engineering firm that seeks practical uses for reclaimed beneficial gases), founded a pilot program at the Rutgers EcoComplex near Bordentown to follow the latter path and turn solid waste into something useful. That program, belonging to Bridgewater-based Adsorptech Inc., recently was awarded $55,000 by the New Jersey Business Incubator Network to accelerate its work in the development of alternative fuel technologies. The grant was part of a $220,000 overall award to four new-technology businesses in the state.
The grant, Maheshwary says, is allowing his small company become a main player in the growing waste-to-energy sector. Adsorptech, which uses adsorption technology to cull beneficial gases (primarily oxygen and nitrogen) from solid matter, was formed by what had been a four-man task force at BOC in northern New Jersey. Adsorption is when molecules or atoms are pooled onto the surface of a material. By contrast absorption is when one substance permeates another.
Maheshwary says that BOC, mired in corporate culture, had “decided it didn’t want to be profitable anymore” and left his task force, charged with improving adsorption technologies, to languish.
When BOC sold itself to Linde Maheshwary and crew were given job offers in Munich, largely because Linde decided not to pursue the technologies in the United States. He and his colleagues decided to stay in New Jersey and start their own company, and the beginning was scary.
“We always had a lot of projects going at BOC,” Maheshwary says. “But when you step out on your own you’re absolutely fresh.” Adsorptech started walking, “baby steps at a time,” and got involved with Rutgers University, which provided it lab space to develop gas adsorption plants, he says. Soon the company was recreating the processes it had developed at BOC.
Adsorptech’s ties with Rutgers allowed the company to build a 12-foot-by-12-foot-by-50-foot adsorption plant at the Rutgers EcoComplex, an environmental research center that borders the Burlington County Landfill. There the company refined its processes enough to win “a very large contract” with Dow Corning in Delaware.
Maheshwary does not like to give numbers, either because his company is in the bid stage for projects, or because he likes to keep his competitors — mainly Linde, the giant in the field — guessing. But Dow Corning was impressed enough to buy outright a large adsorption plant that will help the company break down waste PCBs and convert them to clean gas. Adsorptech delivered the plant to Delaware on July 13, and Maheshwary did say that the move is part of a $20 million investment for Dow Corning, which is trying to clean up large stockpiles of toxic waste from its manufacturing site.
The plant itself, Maheshwary says, allows all manner of solid waste — tires, coal, garbage — to be converted to energy gases like ethanol. This is possible because through adsorption, oxygen — needed to either breakdown materials or enhance the capacity of cohort gases, like the boost it provides acetylene in a blowtorch — can be efficiently extracted.
Separating single gases is vital to the process, Maheshwary says, because it simply makes things more efficient and cheaper to produce and operate. You could, for example, process nitrogen and oxygen together, but as the process requires temperatures on the order of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, processing both would require a machine as much as four times larger than one that will draw just one of those elements.
Multiplying elements in the process also multiplies the noxious runoff, Maheshwary says. Byproducts such as smog are common.
Born in India to an academic family — “everyone in my family is a college professor” — Maheshwary earned his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Assam Engineering College in 1989. He started as a process engineer for Engineers India Ltd. before moving to BOC. He immigrated 15 years ago and worked for BOC as a process engineer and in cryogenics, which led him to the adsorption task force. “That was my lucky break,” he says; the one that got him to see the promise of adsorption plants.
The promise of these plants, which consist of tanks, metal bars, and exhaust fans and look like 1960s depictions of space stations, is the ability to provide fuel and energy on a large scale, Maheshwary says. Adsorptech, in fact, is bidding on a project that would apply the technology for turning solid waste into biogas to a “mid-sized city” in the U.S. As the project is still up in the air, Maheshwary will not say which city, but the technology has been successful in parts of Europe. Domestic interest is starting to build as cities such as New Orleans, Jacksonville, Florida, San Antonio, and San Jose, which all have announced plans to develop waste-to-fuel capabilities.
But with great power generation comes great responsibility. “These machines have to run 24/7, every day,” he says. “They can’t break down. It would be like driving your car for 400,000 miles at 100 miles an hour.”
Getting the NJ-BIN grant, Maheshwary says, will help Adsorptech become far more competitive in researching and developing larger-scale and larger-capacity plants that are as reliable as they ultimately will need to be. It also will make the large scale waste gasification processes for customers more economical, he says.
Maheshwary estimates that the windfall will help accelerate the company’s development work by four years. “The award has boosted our will to pursue our goals and more, by validating our thought process,” he says.
The development of adsorption technologies, Maheshwary contends, has been lacking in the United States, in part because “we’re not very sexy to investors.” Such firms reasonably can offer 15-to-18-percent returns on investment, which, though better than the stock market, is still not the 400-percent profit American investors like to see in technology companies.
But investment in research is critical, Maheshwary says. The technology, which would look simple and straightforward to many, has its share of subtleties and quirks that need to be worked through, especially when trying to expand smaller-scale projects into larger ones. And to get investments money, companies in the field need to overcome the negative perceptions. People believe that such technology has no real use in the United States and that it is expensive, Maheshwary says. It is expensive — now — he admits, but like anything, it would become less so if it were given proper opportunities to develop.
Maheshwary suspects that advances will come in small steps, and by startups like Adsorptech. Creating niches, such as companies devoted to oxygen adsorption and those devoted to carbon adsorption, could also advance overall technologies, he says.
One thing that needs to be avoided is the corporate culture, Maheshwary says. Back at BOC, his task force eventually was laid off while “the boss was satisfied with his 55-million-pound bonus.” Maheshwary says that his “lucky break” in the adsorption task force came in a rare moment of clarity by the corporation, which realized that advances in its own technology interests were only going to be possible by separating the scientists from the corporate environment.
“Corporations encourage mediocrity and discourage ideas,” he says. “I can’t go back to that.” When he and his colleagues founded Adsorptech they did so in a more familial way. So far, he says, the plan has worked, as evidenced by the company’s ability to begin with small, academic lab equipment and now be on the verge of supplying energy to a whole city.
Ultimately, Maheshwary sees the shrinking of landfills and the acceptance of solid waste as a viable, clean fuel source — so long as science is allowed to advance, and not be strangled under corporate politics.
“We want to win,” he says. “And this is how we’re going to do it.”
— Scott Morgan
Adsorptech Inc., 3 Powelson Lane, Bridgewater; 732-356-1000. Apurva Maheswary, president. www.adsorptech.com.