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