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Turning Old Tires into New Tankfuls

Fuel Frontiers wants to build a plant to convert trash into ethanolTOMS RIVER – Fuel Frontiers has plans to chip away at America’s dependence on foreign oil. The waste-to-ethanol plant it proposes setting up in Toms River would convert wood chips—and other organic garbage, including old tires—into the same form of gas-stretching alcohol that Midwesterners make out of corn.

Fuel Frontiers, which will soon relocate to Toms River from its current Washington, D.C., headquarters, says the proposed facility could produce 52 million gallons of ethanol a year. Fuel Frontiers is a subsidiary of Nuclear Solutions, also based in Washington, D.C.

Company representatives met with Dover Township council members in late April, says Fred Frisco, director of investor relations for Fuel Frontiers, and hope to start building the Toms River facility by late summer. The plant, estimated to cost $100 million, was first proposed in November 2004.

But support for the project isn’t a given. For instance, while Michael J. Fiure, Dover Township councilman-at-large, is “definitely in favor of ethanol being used as a fuel,” and says he needs more information before deciding whether or not to back the plant.

“We’re not advancing or stopping the project,” Fiure says. “I can’t make a decision until I hear all the facts.”

The proposal for the facility ultimately must go before the township’s planning and zoning boards for approval. Fiure says public information hearings on the project still haven’t been scheduled.

“My goal is to make sure the public has all the information it needs to make a decision,” he says.

Frisco is optimistic the project will be approved and says the groups had a “productive and informative meeting.”

“The township,” he says, “seemed genuinely excited about it.”

In order to pay for the plant, Fuel Frontiers received preliminary approval for a tax-exempt bond financing, says Glenn Phillips, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Assuming the request goes through, the company will be able to sell $84 million in tax-exempt bonds that Phillips says will most likely be purchased by banks. He estimates the bonds would earn between 4.5% and 5% interest.

Frisco says even if the bonds don’t materialize, the project will go ahead at “full throttle.”

However, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of converting tons of waste into ethanol in New Jersey. Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network, a research and advocacy group in Philadelphia, says there are currently no waste-to-ethanol facilities in the United States because of their unproven financial prospects and the potential danger they pose to the environment. The facility will create waste and toxins, he says.

“They’re proposing to use some of the dirtiest materials available to make ethanol. When you put all those toxic elements in, you can’t destroy them. There has to be a waste stream somewhere,” he says. “And the economics are so terrible no one wants to build them. It’s just very expensive and very experimental.”

Further, Ewall says ethanol won’t solve the country’s dependence on gas and that a waste-to-ethanol facility would use more energy than it would create. “Even if we took all our farmland, stopped growing food on it and put it into producing ethanol, it wouldn’t be enough to [solve the energy crisis],” he says. “Investing in any type of alternative fuel is worse than conserving fuel.”

“That’s false, totally false,” Frisco says of Ewall’s assessment. He says the facility wouldn’t produce toxins, but it would create jobs for area residents. More than 200 workers would be needed to build the facility and as many as 60 full-time employees to staff the plant, he says.

The targeted site is a six-acre plot of land off Route 9 in Toms River that now serves as the Ocean County Recycling Center. Fuel Frontiers has already signed an agreement with the Ocean County Recycling Center and Venture III Associates, the property’s owners, to lease the land and buy feedstock—the discarded tires and other waster organic material that will be converted to fuel.

Frisco says the recycling center already receives plenty of material that can serve as feedstock to make ethanol and that the plant will mark an improvement on the land’s current use. The recycling plant, he says, is an eyesore that produces smoke and noise.

“We’re going to improve the façade and install a safe, closed system,” Frisco says. “It’s 100% environmentally safe. If you spilled [ethanol], it would be no different from spilling scotch.”

Kristin Brekke, communications director for the American Coalition for Ethanol in South Dakota, says she is not aware of any facilities that make ethanol from waste in the U.S. and can’t comment on such a plant’s environmental impact. “I think they would be pretty unique,” she says.

Meanwhile, she says ethanol facilities that use corn are safe and have good environmental records.

Brekke says the U.S. produced 4 billion gallons of ethanol last year in 95 plants; the country’s current ethanol-making capacity stands at about 4.5 billion gallons. She says there are 33 additional ethanol production facilities being built in the country, many of which are slated for the Midwest.

Still, Brekke acknowledges that ethanol isn’t poised to greatly diminish the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Last year, she says American drivers burned some 140 billion gallons of gasoline.

With gas prices expected to top $3 a gallon in many parts of the country this summer, the federal government has recently renewed its attention to ethanol and other alternative fuels. A plan put forth by President George W. Bush in early April to decrease the country’s reliance on foreign oil mentions increasing ethanol production and researching alternative fuels.

The next hurdle for the Fuel Frontiers’ plant will be facing Dover Township’s planning and zoning boards, expected early this summer.

The Voodoo that They Do

Producing ethanol from old tires is not magic, says Joseph F. Longo, president and founder of Startech Environmental in Wilton, Conn. His company’s plasma converter system will be at the heart of the Fuel Frontiers waste-to-ethanol plant.

The converter takes shredded tires and applies so much heat that they turn into a gas. This breaks down the material’s molecular bonds, freeing the basic atoms and molecules, including the carbon and hydrogen. Fuel Frontiers will then expose the gas to a catalyst that will rearrange the parts into liquid ethanol. Longo says this process works without producing any toxic waste and requires no smokestack.

“It won’t take R&D to see if this works,” says Longo. “They are taking proven capabilities and putting them into the system.”

E-mail to bquinlan@njbiz.com

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