Newswise — GLASSBORO, N.J. --Rowan University chemical engineering students are helping make coffee go green.

That’s a good thing, as they are exploring ways to reduce waste, recover excess water, and save energy in coffee manufacturing, making the production process more environmentally friendly for one of America’s favorite beverages.

Steven Hauser, 22, from Hamilton, New Jersey; Carly Jankowski, 20, from Middletown, New Jersey; Michael Vincent Laurio, 30, from Manila, Philippines; Adam Niznik, 21, from Dallas, Pennsylvania; and Sommer Vandergrift, 22, from Williamstown, New Jersey, are working with professors Dr. Mariano J. Savelski and Dr. C. Stewart Slater on the project for Nestlé USA under a $250,000 Pollution Prevention grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Sustainable manufacturing

The project, now in its third year, continues to impact both undergraduate and graduate students in the department and provides Nestlé USA with fresh ideas on sustainable manufacturing, along with a pipeline to prospective employees.

One of the projects the Rowan research group has explored focuses on strategies for water recovery at the Nestlé USA soluble coffee factory in Freehold, New Jersey, investigating various methods to reduce the use of fresh water and increasing water recovery from waste streams in their factory operations.

Savelski said, “The goal of sustainable food manufacturing is to produce products in a more efficient manner by saving water, energy and costs while reducing waste. This leads to a reduction in the environmental footprint of the operation.”

Re-use applications

The team is conducting its research in the Process Research Laboratory in the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering on the Glassboro campus. This lab provides the most technologically advanced separation processes, which are able to effectively recover water and valuable chemicals from waste streams for potential re-use applications. These objectives advance the goals of waste minimization and material recovery for sustainable manufacturing.

Dr. Anahita Williamson, Region 2 U.S EPA director of Environmental Science and Assessment, recently visited campus to meet the team and see project results.

Food and beverage manufacturing typically uses large amounts of water at various stages of production. In cases where the product must be dried of all its water before packaging, such as with instant coffee, this generates a significant amount of wastewater.

Water recovery

The Rowan team evaluated a novel membrane process capable of recovering 100,000 gallons per day of water of suitable quality from factory waste to re-use it in cooling tower operations, with estimated savings of $180,000 per year and a 28-percent reduction in life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions

The membrane system is one of the separation processes in the Rowan Chemical Engineering research laboratories. According to Slater, “The system can be effectively used to recover water of various purities for industrial re-use applications. The Nestlé case study is only one of many examples of how this novel membrane technology can be implemented in sustainable manufacturing. Other uses of the membrane process are for efficient concentration of beverages.”

Students have enjoyed a lot of success with this project.

John Morton III, a Rowan alumnus who worked on the Nestlé project in its first year, now serves as a coffee production supervisor at the Freehold plant.

Experience benefits

Drew Skiba, a current student who joined the project in its second year, received an engineering co-op opportunity to work in Nestlé’s Industrial Services group. “The experience gained on my Nestlé–EPA project at Rowan has helped me connect course work to real-world issues in sustainability,” Skiba said.

Christian Wisniewski, who earned a B.S. in 2016 and M.S. in 2018, worked on sustainable manufacturing research projects with Savelski and Slater and recently was hired as an environmental engineer for the State of Delaware, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.  He is using his experiences with life-cycle assessments to develop greenhouse gas inventories and evaluate methods to further reduce these emissions.

Since the start of the project three years ago, two graduate students and 15 undergraduate students have worked on the Nestlé research. This is one of several projects Rowan’s Chemical Engineering Department received that is sponsored by the U.S. EPA through its Region 2 Pollution Prevention grant program. Rowan teams also conducted research for a specialty chemical plant at DuPont’s Parlin, New Jersey, facility and completed projects with pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Novartis and Bristol-Myers Squibb. This year, a Rowan team led by Dr. Kirti Yenkie has begun a new EPA-funded project for solvent recovery and reuse in the pharmaceutical and allied industries.