For nearly 15 years John Magennis has meticulously maintained an $85 million building on Duck Island, just across from Trenton’s riverfront marina. Its lights are burning, its circuit boxes are immaculate, its machinery looks freshly painted — brand new. But there are vines growing in the chain link fence that protects it from intruders, and its parking lot is empty.

Magennis, manager of information systems for the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), is keeping watch over the Regional Sludge Drying Facility, a never-used plant that was to have turned treated sewage from Trenton, Lawrence, Hamilton, and Ewing into fertilizer. The building, first proposed in the early-1980s, and completed in 1992 in what turned out to be a stroke of almost unbelievably bad timing, is now on death row. Its land and equipment, with a salvage value of just $2.2 million, will soon be sold to the highest bidder — unless a savior steps in.

Stephen Paul, a Ph.D. physicist with Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL), badly wants to be that savior. Having painstakingly raised $5.5 million in seed money, he is tantalizingly close to taking the first steps toward realizing his dream of using the plant to turn food waste and other elements into P-Series automobile fuel.

P-Series fuel, named by Paul after Princeton University, is a renewable biomass-based fuel, which was classified as an alternative fuel by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1999, and is the only fuel to be added to the list of alternative fuels since it was created under the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The Department of Energy is counting on alternative fuels such as P-Series products to power government fleet vehicles. P-Series fuel can also be used with the millions of privately-owned flexible fuel passenger cars now on the road — and the impetus to do so rises in direct proportion to the price of gasoline.

Magennis, a Hamilton native and Chesterfield resident, has worked on a wide range of projects for the MCIA. A graduate of Bordentown High School he is married to Lynn Magennis, a real estate agent with ReMax in Hamilton. They have a son who will be a freshman at New York University in the fall.

He became involved in the sludge drying facility in 1990. By then it was already mired in problems, but it had started out to be what sounded like a smart, cost-efficient solution to an expensive waste disposal problem. “It used to cost $300 to $600 a ton to dispose of sludge,” he says. Trenton decided that a better alternative would be to build a plant where the waste could be turned into granular fertilizer. “They were going to send it to orchards in Florida,” he says, “because of the long growing season there.”

Only four such plants were ever built in the United States. In addition to the Trenton plant, there was one in Ocean County and there were two in California. Only one of the plants, the one located in Los Angeles, ever operated. Now all are closed. A mid-sized plant, the Trenton facility “could have handled 400 percent of the area’s waste flow,” Magennis says wistfully. “We could have taken from other towns.”

The plant was nearly complete in 1988. “It was to be the first on line,” says Magennis. But then there a contractor dispute arose. In the meantime, the Los Angeles plant got started, and it was immediately apparent that it had a design flaw. “We had to go back and redesign the plant,” he says.

It was complete in 1992, the very year in which the DEP declassified sludge as hazardous waste. “The shit hit the fan in 1992,” is how Paul puts it. “Everyone was looking to point fingers. The timing was terrible. It was still a good idea, but it wasn’t economically feasible.”

It was going to cost $400 a ton to turn sludge into fertilizer at the plant, but, suddenly, Trenton and surrounding towns, freed from treating the sludge as hazardous waste, could dump it for $60 a ton. The sludge now is trucked to farms. “I’m not sure what kind of farms, probably sludge,” says Magennis, “and golf courses, too, but it’s not approved for vegetable farms.”

Rendered a dinosaur just as it was about to open, the sludge drying facility had economic issues. The federal government had provided $30 million in grants. These grants are usually forgiven if promising new technology does not pan out, but the feds did not want to forgive these grants. Magennis’ position was “why spend $6 to $8 million to start it up to prove that it wouldn’t work economically?” He helped to argue this case for eight years, and, in 2000, the grants were forgiven.

The $55 million the county had kicked in, however, is largely lost. It will recoup $2.2 million if it sells to Paul’s company, Trenton Fuel Works. It will also save the $160,000 to $200,000 it has been paying to keep essential light and heat on. All of the municipal players involved have agreed to sell to Paul. In turn, his investors are just waiting for the county’s approval of the feasibility study he has commissioned from Biomedics, a company based in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“Both parties, the buyer and the seller, are highly motivated,” says Paul. “The sale is imminent.” He doesn’t actually cross his fingers as he says this, but he knows that getting to the point where he is actually turning supermarket leftovers into fuel — even getting to the point where he can claim the building as his own — will be, if not a miracle, than at least a feat akin to finding a parking spot on Nassau Street at noon.

The road to this point has been anything but smooth. Paul, interestingly enough, reveals this as he swats away a question on financing, politely labeling it dumb, and at the same time demonstrating his own keen grasp of the subject — way too keen for your average research scientist.

Refitting the plant for his process will cost about $50 million, he says. So, has he started to raise the difference between the $5.5 million committed to his company and that amount? “Of course not,” he says, explaining that everyone knows that a start-up wants to reduce the risk for investors as much as possible before asking for money, thereby securing better terms.

The feasibility study has provided some comfort. “I’m very, very pleased with it,” he says. “I did do a complete lay-out and cost analysis. Investors will want a detailed engineering study next.” The study will take about six to nine months.

Paul, who holds a patent on the P-Series fuel mixture he will manufacture at the plant, didn’t always know so much about business. Originally, he licensed his patent to a group of businessme. The arrangement did not work out well. He now has nothing but contempt, not only for businessmen, but also for American business. “We don’t make anything,” he says, throwing his hands up in despair. “It’s all buying and selling, selling and buying.”

After substantial wrangling, Paul got the license back, and is still smarting, but is also much smarter about how business works. From now on, it will be hands on. “You need that passion,” interjects Magennis.

Paul, who earned his undergraduate physics degree from Cornell (Class of 1975) and his graduate degree from Columbia, has passion to spare.

Asked when he decided to devote himself to formulating an alternative fuel, he shoots back: “The last Gulf War. The last time that people died over oil.”

In addition to decrying dependence on Middle Eastern oil, Paul is appalled over the garbage that we oh-so-casually toss away.

“Priscilla Hayes says we send 1 1/2 million tons of food waste to landfills,” he says, referring to a statement made by the coordinator of the New Jersey Solid Waste Policy Group. “They’re just bioreactors,” he says of the garbage mountains. “They’re full of gasses, including methane — a very potent gas that reflects 21 percent greater heat than carbon dioxide. It creates totally needless greenhouse gas. We have to keep organics out of landfills. The climate of the planet is hanging in the balance. Every piece of orange that you throw away will decompose and get in the atmosphere. It will end up as gas.”

While few think twice about chucking a half-eaten orange into the trash, Paul paints a picture of the fate of that fruit that could well make its way into a horror film. “You should see a landfill in the morning,” he says. “Huge plumes of gas suddenly erupt and shoot up high into the air.”

Perhaps that’s a reason that “Garbageland: On the Secret Trail of Trash,” the popular 2005 book detailing the attempts of its author, Elizabeth Royte, to follow the trail of her garbage, features so many scenes wherein she is chased away from landfills by aggressive security guards.

In any case, Paul is on a mission fueled by the dual 21st century dilemmas of an increasingly unstable Middle East, with all the implications that holds for conflict, misery, and soaring gasoline prices, and an increasingly unmanageable landfill situation, with implications ranging from out-of-control dumping fees to global warming.

Paul’s fuel will use one problem to solve another. If widely adopted, it could go a long way toward erasing both.

This is how it will work. Garbage trucks will bring organic waste to the Trenton plant. There will be food waste, probably from supermarkets, schools, and institutions of all kinds. There will also be grass cuttings, food-contaminated paper (think burger wrappers), sawdust, and leaves. It will all be dumped into the hoppers that were to be used for sludge, and, through the addition of mineral acids and heat (450 degrees Fahrenheit), turned into a clear liquid in something like 20 seconds.

Turning food waste into other products, including compost and fertilizer, requires de-watering. Food can easily contain 50 percent water, a percentage that rises to 95 percent for watery vegetables like lettuce. For the creation of compost, this is a bad thing, or at least something that must be wrung out of the product. But Paul’s P-Series fuel process requires water, so no de-watering needs to be done before the waste can be dumped.

Once the food waste has been liquefied, though, the water does have to be removed. “You can’t have water in your gas tank,” says Paul. That’s the next step, and the equipment to accomplish it is in place. The water will go off as steam, and that, says Paul, is the only emission that will emanate from his plant.

After being dewatered, the food waste destined to become P-Series fuel will be sent off-site, to tank farms, where ethanol and the liquid by-product of natural gas production will be added to it. The mixture will be 20 to 25 percent food waste, 30 percent natural gas, and 40 percent ethanol. Paul says that the 89 octane fuel will sell for about 10 to 15 percent less than mid-range gasoline.

An early customer could be the government. Under government mandates, these fleets must use alternative fuel where it is available. He believes that any car that can use ethanol can use his P-Series fuel, and says there are 6 million such vehicles now on the road, with 1 million a year more expected.

Seasoned businessman that he now is, Paul acknowledges that each car manufacturer will have to agree that the P-Series fuel, a clear liquid that can be used alone or mixed with gasoline, will not damage cars or void warranties. He thinks that this will happen.

The next step would be P-Series fuel pumps at gas stations. But will gas stations install the pumps? “If they don’t, I will,” declares Paul. “I’ll go as close to retail as I have to. Exxon did, and I will too.”

The plant will also use some of the food waste it takes in to produce a granular substance that, when mixed with small pieces of coal, can be used to power industrial equipment. “We’ll use it here, for our operations,” says Paul. Some may also be sold to other manufacturers.

Because of the high water content of food, it will take a lot of garbage to keep the plant running at capacity. Paul and Magennis do the math, taking into account the high water content of food waste and the amount that can be packed into a garbage truck or tractor trailer. They figure that it would take about 45 loads to get to capacity. It won’t be easy getting that much raw material, but Paul is confident that Hayes, who shares his passions, is working hard to get it flowing.

He also hopes that there will soon be a day when householders will add their apple cores, dinner plate scrapings, and gunked up pizza boxes to the mix. He points out that Burlington County ran a pilot program in which it asked residents to separate food waste. The response was enthusiastic, says Paul, “and they went into it knowing that there was no place for the food to go.” Imagine the response, he says, if people knew that their leftovers could reduce their tax bills through lower disposal costs, could lower their gasoline bills, and could help the environment.

He will charge haulers about half the $105 a ton tipping fee they would ordinarily pay to dump their loads, and hopes that that will be incentive enough for waste producers to sign on with haulers who use his facility.

With his dream so close that he can almost smell the leftovers, Paul says that his employer, PPPL, has been “enormously supportive.” The lab encourages scientific advances by allowing its scientists to spend 20 percent of their time on their own projects. For the rest, he can use vacation. And any waking hour he can steal. “I was up until 3 a.m. last night,” he says.

Paul is the father of three, one of whom is a year ahead of Magennis’ son at NYU. His wife, Gilda, is a psychologist who works for Princeton University, doing administrative work and research.

Completing a tour of the proposed Trenton Fuel Works plant, Paul points out a hopper that had been installed to shoot the fertilizer that was to have been made there onto railroad cars. He points through the bushes to railroad tracks, and says that it would be easy to restore the rail link. He walks past a power box, full of new-looking coiled wires, which Magennis opens to flip on a blower. Moving toward the blower, Paul gets a bit tangled in briars.

“By summer there will be bees and wasps here,” says Magennis.

Paul just smiles. If he is indeed here this summer to battle the bees, so long used to having the place to themselves, it will mean that P-Series alternative fuel from his plant is really on its way to powering cars and trucks. “In two years,” he says, “I’ll have it gushing fuel enough for 15,000 cars.”

Bees, watch out. The whole sludge thing didn’t pan out, but maybe, just maybe, the constellations are lined up just right, and the time for Trenton Fuel Works is here. Perhaps the timing for turning last night’s leftovers into fuel is just as good as the timing for turning sludge into fertilizer was bad.

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