What if we could turn that waste into energy, the way Doc does at the

end of "Back to the Future?" He empties the contents of a garbage can

into his time traveling DeLorean, and the vehicle is ready to go.

Well, we haven’t come that far yet, but down off Route 543 in

Columbus, three miles south of Bordentown, it’s getting closer. There

the Rutgers University EcoComplex is working on several projects

designed to change the landfill from the last stop for civilization’s

waste into a usable, profitable, and green source of energy.

The EcoComplex will partner with the New Jersey Technology Council to

host a series of workgroups on the energy technologies on Monday,

February 25, at 3 p.m. The workshops are: Alternative Energy,

presented by Professor Jess Everett, College of Engineering, Rowan

University; BioEngergy Technologies, facilitated by David Specca,

acting director of the EcoComplex, and Energy Efficiency and IT,

facilitated by Victor Udo, manager of business planning and research

for Atlantic City Electric. Cost: $60. Register online at

www.njtc.org.

This is the first year the EcoComplex has partnered with the NJ Tech

Council on the event. However, says Specca, the council has been

holding similar workshops for the past few years.

The EcoComplex itself was first conceived in 1998 as a part of

Rutgers’ Agriculture Experiment Station. It was developed in

partnership with the Burlington County Board of Freeholders and in the

last decade has grown from primarily a research greenhouse focusing on

the agriculture business to a research facility looking into not only

agriculture, but aquaculture, and alternative energy. It is also

involved in the development of a variety of new technologies as well

as teaching and acting as an outreach center dedicated to "enhancing

the environment and agriculture through education, outreach and

`green’ business development."

The EcoComplex, located adjacent to the Burlington County landfill,

does more than simply house research on the environment and green

technology. The building itself was built in an "eco-friendly way,"

explains Margaret Brennan, an associate director at the station. The

32,000-square-foot building includes an atrium with full-height glass

with solar screens positioned to block the summer sun while still

allowing the winter sun to heat the floor in a passive solar-heating

system. Other environmentally friendly elements include recycled metal

for the interior panels and a newly-formulated interior paint that

eliminates "off-gassing" of volatile organic compounds, also known as

VOCs.

The complex serves a variety of functions.

Demonstration Greenhouse. The demonstration greenhouse showcases new

technologies in "real world conditions for economic development," says

Brennan. The greenhouse was designed by the BioResource Engineering

Department of Cook College at Rutgers and has a "soft footprint on the

environment," meaning its environmental impact is small. This portion

of the complex has been operational since 1996 and is one of the

largest greenhouses in the country, with over 46,000 square feet of

production space and 10,000 square feet of support space. Research on

year-round vegetable production and aquaculture is done here.

Rutgers faculty use the greenhouse for a variety of experiments, most

often the collecting of data on the performance of a particular

species to determine if it is ready for market. "They identify

production type issues, which is an important final step in bringing

something into full scale production," says Specca.

The greenhouse also "practices what it preaches" by using alternative

energy sources in its own mechanical systems. The EcoComplex is

currently in the process of converting its hot water heaters to use

landfill gas. Landfill gas will also be used to generate electricity

for the greenhouse in the future, says Specca. Another new project for

the greenhouse is an anaerobic digester, which takes food waste and

converts it to a high-methane gas similar to landfill gas that will

provide energy.

Education and Conference Center. The facility also includes a 120-seat

auditorium, several classrooms and conferences rooms, and a banquet

facility in the building’s atrium.

"One of the primary functions of both the Agriculture Experiment

Station and the EcoComplex is to assist in the transfer of technology

from the university to the working community," says Specca.

"Developing these new technologies helps both the environment and the

economy."

The facility allows the EcoComplex to hold conferences, workshops, and

demonstrations of the projects and technologies that are under study

there. The Rutgers researchers are involved in a variety of projects,

several involving growing tasty tomatoes year-round.

"It’s difficult to get a consistently good tomato for winter

production," says Specca. They have several species under trial at the

EcoComplex, and while they aren’t yet as good as a tomato you grow in

your own garden in summer, Specca believes they are making progress.

While growing a better tomato may seem mundane, the EcoComplex is also

involved in research into alternative energy sources to both reduce

dependence on fossil fuels and help to eliminate the greenhouse gases

they produce. The complex recently hosted a conference for

municipalities and waste disposal companies on the use of liquid

natural gas in trucks.

"The goal of the EcoComplex is to become a hub for research,

education, and outreach on environmental issues," says Brennan, who,

after over a decade of work at the Agriculture Experiment Station is

still surprised to find herself working in the agriculture field. "I

grew up in Brooklyn and I never even saw a farm," she says. She

received her bachelor’s degree in economics from Rutgers in 1994 and

had started on a master’s degree in science policy at Rutgers when she

was introduced to the agriculture department as part of her work for

her degree. "The more I learned from the people I met there the more

fascinated I became," she says. She received her master’s from Rutgers

in 1996 and went to work for the Agriculture Experiment Station, where

she is now the director of growth and development.

Funding for the EcoComplex comes from a variety of sources. "We are a

line item in the Rutgers University budget and we also receive money

from the New Jersey Science and Technology Council," says Specca.

"There is always talk of budget cuts from the state, but this is an

important program and I hope we’ll be looked on favorably."

In addition, the complex receives grant money from the USDA, the EPA,

and the DEP. One of its most interesting grants in recent years was

from NASA. From 1999 to 2004 the EcoComplex had a grant to research

sustainable plant production systems for the Mars Mission project.

"It would be impossible to take all of the food necessary for such a

trip on board a space ship. The weight would just be too much," Specca

explains. NASA asked the EcoComplex to study "bio-regenerative life

support systems" that would allow astronauts to grow their own food,

using the waste products recycled form the crew to create energy and

fertilizer. Unfortunately, the project was shelved and funding ended.

"It was a fascinating project," he says.

Business Incubator. A small amount of the EcoComplex’s funding comes

from rents from its business incubator. The complex houses 11

high-tech companies working in a variety of agriculture and energy

areas, says Specca, who like Brennan, never imagined his career would

take the turn that it has. "I grew up on a New Jersey vegetable farm,

and I planned to be a farmer just like my father and grandfather," he

says. He studied horticulture at Rutgers, where he obtained his

bachelor’s degree in 1982, then returned home to begin his career as a

farmer. "I’ve got two other brothers and when they both returned to

the farm it got pretty crowded. It was obvious it just wasn’t big

enough to support all of us."

Specca became the East Coast manager for DNA Plant Technology, an

agricultural biotech firm, and in 1995 was offered the position of

director of developmental programs at the EcoComplex’s greenhouse. He

was named acting director of the EcoComplex shortly after its office

space was opened in 2001. He is currently working on a master’s degree

in plant science.

"I do see a connection, between where I started in farming and where I

am now," he says. "It is all about integrating systems. You need to

look at the local resources. If the resource is wood, how can you use

it?"

Specca did the research and found that one of New Jersey’s resources

is waste.

"New Jersey is a densely populated area, and it is also an area with a

very high income level. Studies have shown that there is a strong

correlation between the income level of a household and the waste that

household produced. The richer the household, the more trash there

is," he explains.

Dealing with waste is a constant issue in the densely populated

Philadelphia/New Jersey/New York region. "At the EcoComplex we did an

inventory of biomass in the region. We looked at 40 categories of

waste, including paper, farm residue, and solid waste. One of the

biggest resources in this area is our waste. That makes converting

waste into energy an excellent fit for this region," he says.

Several of the businesses at the EcoComplex incubator are working on

renewable energy or bio-energy projects, while others are in more

traditional agriculture, says Specca. They are expected to use the

incubator facilities for about three to five years before being able

to move on to their own facilities and allow new companies space in

the EcoComplex.

Some of the companies can already be considered business successes.

TerraCycle Inc., which is best known for its worm poop fertilizer,

moved to the EcoComplex because the greenhouse facilities allowed it

to do year-round research. "They were set up in a parking lot at

Princeton University, but in the winter time the weather kept them

from working," says Specca.

Other agriculture-related businesses currently at the incubator

include Four Seasons Orchids, Human Nature, and Ocean of Know. Four

Seasons produces orchids for retail markets such as grocery stores and

nurseries. "Orchids could not be grown outdoors in New Jersey. It is a

new crop for this area," says Specca. "We weren’t sure at first how

well they would do, but they have been quite successful."

Human Nature is a company that produces organic produce as well as

organic seeds for farmers and gardeners who wish to grow their own

organic vegetables. Ocean of Know is a not-for-profit educational

organization that works with inner-city schoolchildren, particularly

in the New York City area. "They have an online educational program

that allows them to use our facility to teach about agriculture and

aquaculture," explains Specca.

The incubator offers not only access to office and greenhouse space,

but also lab space and scale-up facilities. But for the alternative

energy companies at the complex, easy access to the landfill may be

the most important aspect of the center.

Acrion is another of the incubator’s biggest success stories. The

company has licensed technology to Mack Truck to turn raw landfill gas

into fuel for transportation. Mack is particularly interested in using

the technology in its refuse trucks, says Specca.

"It’s a really good fit because refuse trucks make daily trips to the

landfill, where they can refuel. One of the biggest problems with new

energy sources is finding refueling stations that make sense. This one

is a really neat fit. It is convenient, cost effective, and helps to

clean up emissions from landfills," Specca says.

Of course, turning landfill gas into a usable product is not that

easy. Another business at the EcoComplex Incubator working on a

similar technology is Adsorptech, Inc. The engineering company is

developing economically viable ways to turn landfill gas into usable

energy. Landfill gas is produced at every landfill site that accepts

biodegradable waste. It consists of a mixture of gases including

methane and carbon dioxide.

"Landfill gas contains about 45 to 50 percent methane with the balance

of the product being carbon dioxide, oxygen, and a significant

quantity of trace contaminants," explains John Ambriano, CEO of

Adsorptech. Methane is the main component in natural gas. However,

before the methane in landfill gas can be used effectively, the toxic

brew of about 800 to 1,000 contaminants must be cleaned up. That’s

where Adsorptech comes in.

"The highest use for the gas is as liquid natural gas," says Ambriano.

Of course, this usage also requires the cleanest product. "Right now

it can take up to 20 steps to clean the contaminants from landfill

gas." The more steps in the process, the greater the cost, so to make

it economically viable to use landfill gas, the decontamination

process needs to be reduced to one, or at the most two, steps.

Adsorptech has been in businesses for about three years, says

Ambriano, and was founded by a group of engineers, most of whom had

worked at BOC Gases in Murray Hill. The company was bought out by

Linde Gas in 2006. Each of the directors of Adsorptech has expertise

in a different area, says Ambriano, who received both his bachelor’s

degree and his master’s degree in chemical engineering from Georgia

Tech, in 1983 and 1985.

The company has developed a mobile methane purification laboratory to

validate process performance before a plant is designed, he says. The

mobile laboratory can be taken to a client’s location for work onsite.

Adsorptech has its headquarters in Middlesex and also uses the

research facilities at the Rutgers EcoComplex. The challenge for

Adsorptech has been to build a company that is not just profitable,

but can also finance research into a new technology. The company’s

directors have invested their own money in the project and they are

currently applying for a grant to purchase equipment for scale-up

testing of their landfill gas process.

Converting landfill gas into usable energy is not a panacea for our

energy problems. "There is no one solution," say Ambriano. But his

company, along with the other researchers at the EcoComplex are each

offering up one small step on the road to the solution.

-Karen Hodges-Miller

EcoComplex Companies

Rutgers EcoComplex, Environmental Research and Extension Center, 1200

Florence-Columbus Road, Bordentown 08505-4200; 609-499-3600; fax,

609-499-3647. David Specca, acting director.

www.ecocomplex.rutgers.edu.

Garden State Ethanol, 1200 Florence-Columbus Road, Suite 111,

Bordentown 08505-4200; 609-499-5566; fax, 609-499-3647. Henry Capro,

project director. Home page: www.gardenstateethanol.com.

MicroDysis Inc., 1200 Florence Columbus Road, Bordentown 08505;

609-945-0443; fax, 609-499-3647. Joseph Huang, president.

www.microdysis.com.

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