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Company of 'nerds' seeks fuel from waste


Roaming the hallways of his company's modest Columbia headquarters, Momtaz N. Mansour proudly introduces visitors to the elite, no-necktie band of scientists he calls "nerds."

Mansour, who is a genuine rocket scientist, is the president and founder of Manufacturing and Technology Conversion International Inc. Despite its high-tech name and focus, the company has within its mission a decidedly low-tech goal: to enhance the prestige of America's technologists.

"Accountants here work for us, not the other way around," Mansour boasts.

He began his little class struggle in 1982, founding with his wife, Amal Mansour, a company to research innovative solutions to the nation's energy and waste disposal problems. MTCI may be on the verge of significant breakthroughs, but Mansour still likes to refer to it as the "Revenge of the Nerds."

With his cadre of technologists -- a collection of scientists, researchers and technicians from around the world -- Mansour is exploring new ways of solving old problems. Much of their work revolves around the technology Germany used to power its fearsome buzz bombs in World War II.

"I've never seen an organization like MTCI. They really believe there is nothing they can't do," says William G. Steedman, a senior systems engineer with ThermoChem Inc., MTCI's production and commercialization arm.

MTCI's operations include a test site at Santa Fe Springs, Calif., and a production and development facility at Curtis Bay in Baltimore.

At Curtis Bay, a series of machines have been set up in a former locomotive repair shop. In one corner of the long, cavernous building is a device that burns pulverized coal and uses the hot gases to drive a turbine and make electricity. In another area is a device that the company hopes will eventually be used in coal mines, burning pulverized coal to make steam or hot gases to dry freshly mined coal.

Both systems are highly efficient and generate a fraction of the emissions of traditional coal burners.

MTCI has recently shipped to a paper-mill customer a prototype device -- jokingly called the sludge-o-matic by employees -- that converts waste into a gas that can be used in place of natural gas. The prototype injects paper-mill sludge, a byproduct of paper production, into a bed of special materials suspended in ++ steam, or "fluidized." The materials are heated, converting the sludge into gas.

The heart of all the devices is "pulse combustion," the technology that powered the noisy buzz bombs. In simple terms, a pulse combuster uses the expansion and contraction of its burning fuel to rapidly "reload" itself. The pulsing action of the combuster distributes heat over a wider area than a traditional burner does, allowing it to be used more efficiently.

Proponents of pulse combustion say it holds the key to economical, efficient and clean use of materials that otherwise could prove environmentally hazardous, such as municipal waste high-sulfur coal.

"I think it is very good technology. It has a lot of potential for commercialization," says Sun Chun, director of the Pittsburgh Energy and Technology Center, a field office of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Many companies are working on combustion technology, but MTCI is unusual for its focus on pulse combustion, Chun says. The Energy Department gave MTCI a $1.2 million grant to help develop the paper-mill device, and has provided grants for other projects.

"MTCI is doing a good job. They are a small company, but very innovative and hard working. I think for a small company they can be considered a real success story," Chun says.

Morris O. Hill, president of Baltimore Thermal Energy Corp., says pulse combustion can reduce the space needed for burners, and thus their costs, while at the same time allowing far more materials to be burned safely.

"The process opens the door for a breakthrough," Hill says.

David Hawkins, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, "The proof of most of these technologies is in the operation and maintenance. It's easy to do laboratory work that makes these things look good."

Economic considerations can tempt operators to increase dangerous emissions. And any system that burns wastes should not be allowed to replace recycling, reuse and efforts to reduce the amount of waste created, he says.

Mansour predicts his company will employ 150 people, up from the current 60, in the next 1 1/2 years.

"Our future looks great," he says.

The Egyptian-born Mansour, 50, holds a master's degree and a doctorate in engineering from the California Institute of Technology. From 1965 to 1975 he was at the federal Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, Calif., working on the unmanned space program, including the Mariner and Viking projects.

"Those were great times in the 1960s," he says. However, he says, "The space program kind of died and energy became the hill to climb."

He then joined the Energy Research and Development Administration, forerunner of the Department of Energy, as chief of policy and planning for geothermal energy. Later, he became interested in fuel cells -- electrical-chemical devices -- and helped develop the system that now fuels the equipment aboard the space shuttle.

"But I decided I wanted to get back into real engineering, not engineering management," he says. So he left the federal government and founded MTCI, with his wife, an electrical engineer, as chairman.

He set up shop in his basement with a computer, working part time as a consultant. He generated $85,000 in revenues the first year. Revenues now are running about $4 million a year, with profits of about $80,000, he says.

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