New energy from pollution control

In cucamonga, Calif., Reliance Steel Company's Supercoat division has found a relatively new source of energy: its pollution-control equipment. Like many firms, Reliance found that this necessary equipment was a heavy consumer of energy. Pollutants were burned or removed and the energy involved simply went up the smokestack.

Last year, however, the company installed a new system that enabled it to cut its energy usage by 45 percent, saving the company some $33,000 per month.

Today, notes Larry Dwyer of Reliance, the pollutants are burned and some of the energy is reused to run the equipment and save energy around the plant. The amount of energy Reliance saved, says Mr. Dwyer, is equivalent to the amount of natural gas needed to heat 1,260 homes in southern California for a year.

One of the main reasons Reliance and a lot of other companies began to look to the energy savings on their pollution equipment was the rising cost of energy. When the price of natural gas was allowed to rise under the Natural Gas Act last year, the cost of operating pollution-control equipment soared.

In their search for energy savings, Reliance looked at six different proposals -- some from local California firms and others from Canada, Texas, and New Jersey. The New Jersey firm, REECO, submitted a proposal that was far different from the others and interested the company's engineers. REECO had developed a system that used large heat-absorbing "stones" to store the heat generated by incinerating the pollutants. The stones were able to withstand high temperatures, which most other systems were incapable of.

This heat-absorbing sytem was the work of James Mueller, who had previously been an engineer for Research Cottrell, a pollution-control company.

Mr. Mueller got the idea for his equipment while doing some research in the Massachusetts Institute of Techonology library. There he discovered a package of materials that had never been opened up. They were the notes of a German scientist, Dr. Friedich Siemens, from about the turn of the century. Dr. Siemens had suggested using the stones to absorb heat. With some refinements, Mr. Mueller produced a system that he hoped would work.

Four years later, in 1975, Mr. Mueller had his patents and his first contract. However, the equipment for the first contract was never installed. It wasn't until Inryco Company, a subsidiary of Inland Steel, decided to try it in 1976 that he had the first test of the system.

According to William Parsons of Inryco, the equipment has saved the company more than $50,000 a year in energy. Since the equipment cost $400,000, it has half paid for itself in four years. ironically, the company had installed the equipment not to save money, but to cut down on its pollution.

Like Reliance, Inryco had surveyed six different systems, but decided the REECO system was best for it because of its ability to withstand high temperatures.

Since then Mobil Oil has installed three units -- two at chemical plants that make egg containers and the plastic boxes McDonald's uses for its Big Macs. Wolverine Aluminum is installing one at its coating operations in Detroit, and FMC corporation in Middletown, N.Y., has installed a unit at its pesticide plant.

Shortly, Mr. Mueller expects to be selling $50 million worth of equipment a year. Eventually, he predicts, his firm will become a $100-million-a-year enterprise.

There are other types of technologies that business is using to save on pollution control energy bills. One catalyst system produced by Englehard Minerals and Research-Cottrell lowers the temperatures needed to incinerate the pollutants. Some companies have turned to systems that try to recover the solvents that are being incinerated while still others are looking at coatings that are water based instead of solvent based. The government, for its part, says Mr. Mueller, has been encouraging a switch to water-base solvents.

Ironically, when some companies switch to water-base coatings, they run afoul of the Food and Drug Administration, which insists that long tests be performed on products, such as cans, that are treated with water-base chemicals.

In fact, says Mr. Mueller, the government could do more to encourage business to save on pollution-control bills.But, he says, the people at the Environmental Protection Agency don't want to work with the people at the Department of Energy. If they cooperated with each other, he said critically, business might feel "the bureaucrats in Washington were giving business some real leadership in saving energy on pollution control."

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