Through unique partnerships with utilities, foundries and other companies, Tarun Naik is putting his recycling ideas to the test. Tarun Naik has a message for corporate America. Recycling isn't just good public relations; it's good business.
That message may not be earth-shattering news in the 1990s, but Naik says he's amazed at how many companies still are reluctant to make recycling a priority. Even today, Naik asserts, many executives cling to the outdated belief that disposing of waste materials is a necessary cost of doing business. Subject closed.
Naik, 54, has spent his entire 30-year professional career trying to change those attitudes. Luckily, more and more companies are realizing that recycling can turn liabilities such as waste products into profitable assets. Another factor: a flurry of federal and state laws have slapped restrictions on how waste materials are handled, making disposal more difficult and costly. For many reasons, recycling has become an attractive way to do business in the 1990s.
But how to spin waste products into gold often remains a mystery. Painstaking scientific research a single project can stretch out for several years is needed to come up with the right solution for each manufacturer. That's where Naik comes in, as Director of UWM's Center for By-Products Utilization. Since its launch in 1988, the Center has been housed on campus in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. The Center's motto, solving environmental problems through research, has been carried out in an ongoing series of partnerships with industry. Most of these partnerships are with Wisconsin-based industries, including foundries, utilities and paper mills.
Correspondingly, the Center has increased in size from a one-person staff (Naik, who founded the Center) to the approximately 20 staff members and students currently employed at the Center. (The number of students varies, depending on the number of projects and available funding.) Naik is still in charge, assisted by Assistant Director Rudi Kraus, and by research associate Rafat Siddique. The rest of the technical staff is comprised of graduate and undergraduate students in engineering. Student workers benefit from the experience of working on real-life research problems, and they earn while they learn. Students find that their wages are a welcome source of income for paying their educational expenses.
"We've been able to offer hands-on educational opportunities that students are eager to get," says Naik. He adds that six years ago, he didn't have a single engineering student pursuing a graduate degree in recycling. That picture has changed considerably as more companies demand engineers who are skilled in this area. "In general, our graduates don't have trouble finding jobs," Naik says. Many of Naik's former students are employed as engineers throughout the state. They work for city governments, state agencies such as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and in private industry.
Naik himself has worked in both public and private settings. After receiving a degree in engineering in India, Naik was accepted to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In Madison, he received his master's degree (1964) and Ph.D. (1972) in civil engineering.
Naik worked on his first coal ash recycling project in June, 1963. Back then, testing techniques were relatively primitive. He recalls one project, involving concrete samples, that required heating a room to 120 degrees. "The professor wanted us students to work in that [simulated hot-weather] environment for very short periods of time, because he was concerned about our health," Naik says. He adds gleefully that working in the sweat box had a positive side effect; he shed 20 pounds in the sauna-like environment. "Maybe we should go back to those methods," he jokes while patting his waistline.
Today, Naik's laboratory is equipped with a sophisticated weather test chamber that alternately warms and chills concrete samples automatically. The freeze/thaw cycle simulates the environmental stress that a roadway must endure in a typical Wisconsin winter. Naik has received many tributes in recognition of his research and teaching. In 1986, he received an award of merit from the Wisconsin Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers for Individual Achievement as an Engineer in Education. In 1988, he was elected a Fellow in the American Concrete Institute. The following year, he received an award as an Outstanding Engineering Education from the Wisconsin Society of Professional Engineers. In 1990, he received recognition from several professional organizations as well as an award for Outstanding Service from the College of Engineering and Applied Science. He also received an award from the Mexican Cement and Concrete Institute, Mexico City. In 1997, he received an award for Outstanding Teaching from UWM-CEAS.
Naik's professional involvement is extensive. He is a past president of the Wisconsin Society of Professional Engineers, which has a membership of about 1,600 registered professional engineers; and, past president of the American Concrete Institute, Wisconsin Chapter. He belongs to numerous other professional and industry organizations and is a frequent speaker at conferences, symposiums and workshops worldwide.
Activity at the Center for By-Products Utilization is concentrated in several areas of the UWM engineering building. Computers and desks for the staff dominate one area, while research labs are located on another floor. Much of the laboratory equipment used at the Center is custom-made. Naik indicates that it would be difficult and costly for a manufacturer to try to duplicate the services provided by the Center. "Generally speaking, it would cost private industry about double to duplicate the trained staff, sophisticated testing equipment and data processing available at the Center", he says.
So it's no wonder that at any given time, Naik and his research team are pursuing a dozen or more projects. The best-known of these involves fly ash waste from electric power plants. Naik has received international recognition for his research in mixing fly ash and bottom ash with concrete. Wisconsin has lots of fly ash but no cement manufacturing industry, a situation that Naik believes could be the catalyst for a boom in mini-cement mills around the state. Currently, he is working on a cement manufacturing idea using recycled materials.
"I am absolutely convinced we can do it in Wisconsin", Naik confidently told a Milwaukee Journal business reporter recently.
Naik supports his claim with some persuasive facts. Wisconsin utilities produce some 1.2 million tons of fly ash each year. If none of it is recycled, disposal costs (at about $25 per ton) can quickly add up to $30 million annually.
Conversely, utilities that recycle fly ash can sell it for about $5-30 per ton. "So you're talking about turning a handsome profit on something that used to be a liability", Naik concludes.
Far-sighted utilities are only now beginning to reap huge benefits of fly ash research. Wisconsin utilities have been trying to figure out what to do with this stuff for at least 10 years, says Naik. He has been working with Wisconsin Electric Power Co. in Milwaukee since 1982, attempting to perfect the fly ash-to-cement ratio in concrete. The results are impressive: in 1981, Wisconsin Electric was recycling about 5% of its fly ash; today, more than 60% of its ash is recycled.
The long-range goal of Wisconsin-based electric utilities is to recycle 100% of its fly ash by the start of the 21st century, Naik says.
Today, there's still plenty of fly ash around – enough fly ash, says Naik, to supply as many as 10 cement mini-mills in Wisconsin. The plants, which would employ about 10 to 20 people, could generate sales up to $150 million a year. So far, no investors have expressed interest in the idea. But that hasn't tempered Naik's enthusiasm for these mini-mills.
When it comes to fly ash, Naik is something of a connoisseur. He collects clear glass jars filled with ash from around the world, much as the next person might collect rare coins, stamps or books. His passion is clearly displayed on his Wisconsin license plate, which reads Fly ash. Visitors to his office are often given the opportunity for a close-up look at Naik's unique collection. Some of his samples are from Barcelona, others are from Mount Pinotubo in the Philippines. One jar contains volcanic ash from Mt. St. Helens in Washington.
Volcanic ash has been used as a component in concrete for literally thousands of years, Naik says. He mentions ancient concrete structures in India, Egypt and Rome. The connection between natural volcanic ash and industrial coal ash is a strong one; the two substances share so many chemical compositional characteristics that sometimes Naik refers to coal ash as artificial volcanic ash. Ash may not be glamorous, but one could also say the same for sand, another recyclable material that has captured Naik's imagination.
When Naik dreams of a cement industry in Wisconsin, he also envisions a future repository for used foundry sand (sand is a necessary ingredient of cement). Wisconsin produces about 700,000 tons of used foundry sand annually; most of it ends up in landfills.
UWM's Center for By-Products Utilization has worked with a number of smaller foundries in converting used foundry sand and slag into a useable material. The Wisconsin foundries participating in the Center's recycling projects are: Maynard Steel Casting Co. in Milwaukee, Badger Mining Corporation in Berlin, and Fall River Foundry in Fall River.
According to Naik, foundry executives have become increasingly concerned about sand disposal costs. Such costs have been rising at a rate of 10% per year. Naik and his staff have worked on the problem with some success. One Wisconsin foundry expects to reduce its annual disposal costs from $250,000 to $0 by the end of the 21st century.
A related research project is bringing national recognition to UWM via a new product called manufactured dirt. This so-called dirt is actually an ash-filled fluid slurry that Wisconsin Electric is using as back fill for excavation projects and fill for abandoned underground facilities. The mud-like mixture contains fly ash, sand, cement, water and a few chemical secret ingredients.
Artificial dirt begins as a slurry about the consistency of a very thick pea soup, according to Naik. The slurry is especially effective for a variety of uses: filling in utility trenches containing ducts, pipes, and manholes; other excavations in streets and around foundations; and as fill for abandoned tunnels, sewers, and other underground cavities. It is transported and poured much like ready-mixed concrete at the construction site.
After the slurry is poured, it begins to harden. In a few hours, it achieves and maintains a consistency that's equivalent to or better than real dirt. Workers can later dig through the artificial dirt to check repairs, if necessary.
Also on the horizon: a recycling project to decrease the number of old tires that end up in landfills. Naik is working on projects funded by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and endorsed by WISE (Wisconsin Industry Saving our Environment), the City of Milwaukee and the US Air Force Air National Guard.
Tires are a prime recycling target primarily because there are so many of them. Each year, Americans spend $500 million getting rid of about 250 million tires. Naik's idea isn't to put worn out tires back on the road. He wants to put them in the road. "Instead of burning old tires, which is what happens to most of them, I'd like to see bits of pulverized tires added to concrete and asphalt used in roadway construction," says Naik. As he talks, his hand reaches for a shelf containing neatly labeled jars of pulverized tires (also known as crumb rubber). The ragged black bits vary in consistency from coarse to fine and ultra-fine.
Naik is currently testing his unique rubber/concrete mixture in a project sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. If Naik is right, the new concrete should do a better job of resisting rain and road salt, making the surface more durable. That means fewer potholes to vex drivers, and less work for road repair crews.
"I look forward to receiving more substantial funding to pursue this project further," says Naik.
Naik's fervor for recycling can be traced to his boyhood in India. "There, people recycle everything," he says. "If you buy juice in a plastic jug, afterwards you wash out the jug and return it to the store for refills. I can't remember my mother throwing away any garbage or anything, ever. Even in the 1950s, plastics, glass, steel cans, newspapers, etc., were sold to recycling vendors. Kitchen and garden waste ended up in a neighborhood compost pile."
Old habits die hard, as the compost pile in Naik's Wauwatosa backyard attests. "We've lived here 19 years, and in all that time we've never thrown away a leaf of lettuce or a leaf from a tree," he boasts. All biodegradable materials from vegetable peelings to lawn clippings are tossed on the Naik family compost pile.
Despite receiving national recognition and industry acclaim as an accomplished researcher, Naik never loses sight of his goals as an educator. "I'm not in the recycling business. I'm in the teaching, teaching and teaching business," he announces.
"First, I teach students in the classroom. I still teach undergraduate and graduate courses, and I love it. Second, when we do research, we're really just teaching ourselves. Third, when we lead a seminar or make a presentation, which is known as public service or technology transfer, we're teaching our peers." He wishes that more corporate executives would learn from recycling experience. A successful recycling program begins with the commitment of the company's owners and stockholders, says Naik. Management must decide to stop throwing waste products away.
In Naik's experience, that decision may have even more to do with bottom-line thinking than social consciousness. If disposal costs for companies increase, they have to find ways to deal with that cost. Otherwise, it could put them at a competitive disadvantage, or environmental problems could put them out of business.
Discarding by-products in landfills is not only environmentally undesirable, but increasingly expensive with unknown future liability.
All of this needless effort and waste of valuable resources could be reduced significantly. The key is finding practical uses for these materials. it's also persuading engineers, designers, and manufacturers to specify and use by-products in their operations. CBU is working to close the recycling loop.
The message that by-product utilization is technically sound, environmentally desirable, and economically advantageous has to be delivered in an effective manner.
The CBU is doing just that!