Transforming smelly waste, creating value

Alchemy: An innovative businessman, an inquisitive chemist and a can-do engineer work industrial-strength magic in a former brewery.

June 18, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE - When a dump truck spilled the first five tons of slick, picked, shattered crab shell across Pat Condon's warehouse floor, a smile lifted his face and a strangely affectionate word formed on his lips.

"Chum," Condon said.

Pungent crab chum - foul dregs that Dorchester County crab packers traditionally pay up to $100,000 a year to be rid of - suddenly had cachet.

Last month, Condon, a former Chicago-based securities broker turned profiteering composter, threw open the rear door of his new Cambridge processing plant and fired up a sequence of pampering chemical baths for his chum, announcing that he would not only take the five tons for free but soon he would welcome every slimy shard of just-picked shell the entire county could produce.

Although farmers, incinerator owners and landfill operators traditionally have charged crab shops anywhere from $12 to $40 a ton to dispose of the rank waste, for the first time anyone could remember, the five-ton pile from J. M. Clayton's crab shop went for free.

Not only that, Condon boasted, but someday he would actually pay for the nasty stuff.

The compelling proposition stems from a bit of scientific sleight of hand. A chemist who tends a lab in Condon's factory has engineered a simple chemical process that transforms smelly crab waste into lightweight, odorless flakes called chitosan - a natural polymer used in products from arthritis-fighting neutraceuticals to bandages to super lubricants for oil drilling.

"They pick a million tons of crab a year around here, so that's a lot of waste," said Condon, who runs his business, Chitin Works America, out of the former Wild Goose Brewery near a boating supply store and antiques shop.

"We don't know if we'll make money with it yet or not, but we do know we can make a product," he said.

On the morning of the first run, Condon and his three-man crew timed their effort shoveling a fragrant 10,000-pound pile of fresh chum delivered from the Choptank River docks downtown. In the fall, while still running the customized machinery through its paces, his three-man crew spent five hours slogging through the mess. This time, it took only 20 minutes to move it with a Bobcat from a concrete pad into a 30,000-gallon steel holding tank sloshing with sodium hydroxide.

"Obviously everyone in town was scared to death of us bringing 20 tons of crab chum in here," said Condon, while the first batch bubbled and churned in huge vats around the factory. "You know what it smells like when you get a bad plateful? Well, you get a bad dumpster full and there will be a lot of concern about odors. So we move it pretty quickly off the floor. We don't want complaints from the neighbors."

For two days, the chum slipped from one swirling tub to another as caustic sodas and grinders dissolved the meat, stripped out the protein and chopped Maryland blue crab shell into a fine mash that looked like wet oatmeal.

The chitin polymer is as common as clay, found in the shells of crab, shrimp, lobster - even insects - and is made of large molecules that give the hard coverings both their toughness and flexibility. By separating chitin from tightly bound proteins in the shell, the molecules can be easily processed chemically and scientifically tailored for its various uses. The trick for a would-be manufacturer like Condon is to get the stuff fresh, before bacteria breaks it down into a meal for microbes.

In fact, Condon's seemingly peculiar desire to eventually pay for the waste stems from his need for an incentive to lure packers' freshest, most potent chum.

Engineer and chemist

During their initial run, Birgir "Biggi" Helgason, the 62-year-old plant manager, kept a keen eye on his handmade machinery. He smiled like a new father as raw chum in one tank was stripped down to wet chitin in the next and rolled out on conveyor belts into a steamer, washers and dryers, equipment he had hauled from salvage yards and modified for chitosan production.

Thirty years ago back home on "The Rock," which is what he calls his native Iceland, Helgason engineered multimillion-dollar plants for packing herring, and he's helped build similar plants in the United States. But never has he created one quite like this.

"A lot of this we designed on the back of napkins," he said, shouting over the hiss of steam and whining machinery. "No one would believe I flipped a switch this morning and haven't had to touch it since."

Up and down the production line, a husky, tender-faced chemist named Joe Bristow spooned out samples for testing. When discussions about crab-to-chitin production began in Maryland three years ago, Bristow started researching the polymer as a post-doctoral scholar in chemical engineering at the University of Maryland.

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