Feature Stories

Bob Rossi Works with Harvard's David Keith to Avert Climate Disaster, Unearths Victims of the Big One 66 Million Years Ago

While not excavating bones or working on carbon-capture technologies, Bob Rossi '67 finds time to be a docent at the American Museum of Natural History and sits on NJIT's Alumni Achievement Award committee and the Industrial Advisory Board of NCE's Otto H. York Department of Chemical, Biological, and Pharamaceutical Engineering.

Bob Rossi ’67 is no fan of the lounging beach vacation. His recent summer getaway was to a converted rail house in Marmarth, North Dakota (pop. 136) where he slept in a bunk bed, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and spent his days digging for bones in the baked earth of the Badlands.

What Rossi and his fellow excavators unearthed – a plant-eating behemoth from the Cretaceous period known as Torosaurus – could add persuasive evidence to an ongoing paleontological dust-up. Namely, did the “perforated lizard” in fact exist?

“The unresolved question is whether Torosaurus is a standalone species, or if it’s actually an adult version of Triceratops,” he says of the mammoth creature, with its familiar-looking horn and frill. “What we found here has the potential to extend or maybe even settle that argument.”

Rossi has been contributing both sweat and treasure to the Marmarth Research Foundation, an organization that conducts digs in the Hell Creek geological formation, for the past several years. In 2005, he helped excavate another rare find there: a many-toothed Edmontosaurus with its fossilized skin intact. Ten years earlier, he worked with volunteer crews at another dig in Fort Peck, Montana to excavate and restore an unusually complete 40-ft.-long Tyrannosaurus rex known as “Peck’s rex,” whose casting is now on permanent display at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

What drives him, Rossi says, is the “thrill of discovery, especially when it might be something significant.” But more fundamentally, he is savoring the chance to “pursue science and engineering for their own sake,” with the hope of adding just a little more to the storehouse of human knowledge. As a docent at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, he gets to share the good news of his 65 million-year-old pals, as well as pithy tidbits on human evolution, earth science, and anthropology.

After earning a degree in chemical engineering at Newark College of Engineering (NCE), Rossi spent the bulk of his career in the chemical, metallurgical, paper, and energy industries, first traveling around the globe developing and marketing gas-solids thermal processing technology for the conversion of minerals into more useful chemical forms or energy. He then worked with industries that use the steam and electricity produced by cogeneration plants in their manufacturing processes. Following deregulation of the power industry, he helped site and develop modern electricity plants outfitted with "clean coal” technologies designed to reduce emissions for the newly formed supply-side affiliates of the utilities, PSE&G and Pacific Gas and Electric.

His newest venture, however, represents something of a departure. Rather than combusting carbon, he’s attempting to capture it. As a consultant to the Calgary, Alberta-based firm Carbon Engineering, founded by Harvard University professor David Keith, he is working on a potentially game-changing technology to chemically capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

“Removing it is half the story,” Rossi adds. “The other half is converting it to something useful. We’re hoping to use this CO2 for enhanced oil recovery in depleted oil fields by re-pressurizing old wells with CO2, thereby forcing oil to the surface. In the end, we would leave the CO2 in the well, thus extracting oil with a reduced carbon footprint, a method about 50 percent less polluting than traditional crude oil extraction. We call it ‘green oil.’ At a later stage, the plan is to directly convert the CO2 to methanol and liquid transportation fuels.”

Rossi met Keith, who is one of the leading proponents of geoengineering – aggressive methods to slow climate warming from greenhouse gases in the near-term – six years ago when he tried to interest him in a CO2 capture technology he was developing for the paper industry. Paper manufacturers used an older, related process for over a hundred years to produce caustic soda for the paper-making process. Keith's idea was to use caustic soda to capture CO2 directly from the air.

“I had an idea I felt was patentable and I was at a technical conference in Quebec looking for commercial partners. I met a guy who worked with David Keith and said I wanted to meet him.  At the next technical conference, Keith promised to give me five minutes, and we ended up talking for an hour.”

He laughs, however, in relating how Keith was not so much interested in his technology, “as he was in my gray hair – my years of experience with gas-solids thermal processing in the paper industry. He didn’t want to reinvent the manufacturing wheel, and that’s where I came in.”

The firm, which is funded by Bill Gates, expects to open its first pilot plant in British Columbia next year. Keith's process will separate CO2 molecules directly from the air for enhanced oil recovery, drawing on the high-temperature gas-solids engineering for which Rossi is an expert.

He never gave up on his own technology, however, and recently learned that the U.S. Patent Office had allowed him a patent to concentrate and purify the captured CO2, which could ultimately benefit Keith's process.

“The hope is to contribute my engineering knowledge for significant societal benefit long after I’m gone,” he says, adding that none of it would have been possible without his NCE degree and the tutelage of the industry experts and professors who taught there in the 60s “bringing us the real-world manufacturing problems they were dealing with as they came up.”

“The best decision I made in life was to become a chemical engineer,” he says. “Much of what I’ve done professionally since then is based in some way on that degree.”