AUSTIN, TEXAS (July 18, 3:30 p.m. ET) — A study by the University of Texas at Austin says that if 5 percent of the unusable materials at material recovery facilities in the United States were diverted from landfills and converted to fuel, it would generate enough energy to power 700,000 homes annually.
The study, led by U-T professor Michael Webber, found that the fuel engineered from that waste had a higher energy content than some forms of coal and could be used for energy-intensive commercial and industrial operations.
“The findings from our study demonstrate how engineered fuels can make a meaningful contribution to our nation's strategy while reducing carbon and sulfur emissions compared to some forms of energy,” Webber said. “Recovering energy from waste [is] an opportunity that we can't afford to ignore.”
Webber is assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and the associate director of the Jackson School of Geosciences' Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.
The research was part of a pilot project conducted to demonstrate that fuel from non-recycled plastics and paper, paperboard and cardboard, could successfully power the TXI Hunter cement kiln in New Braunfels, Texas.
The research showed that the reduction in carbon emissions — when compared to coal — would be the equivalent of removing 1 million cars from U.S. roads, and there would also be significant reductions in sulfur emissions.
“The use of [the solid recovered fuel] reduced the SO2 emissions rate by roughly 50 percent compared to ... using coal alone,” said the study, which did not take an in-depth look at the economic feasibility of the use of SRF fuel.
“The preliminary economic analysis reveals that the cost of SRF as delivered to a customer has a strong dependence on local landfill tipping fees,” said the study. “To fully verify economic feasibility, costs such as amortized capital, labor, and technology-specific operations expenses need to be assessed, but are out of the scope of this report.”
“The handling of SRF on a policy basis will impact the economics and viability of this industry, as landfill avoidance incentives and CO2 accounting could be important aspects in SRF economics,” said the report.
“Despite technical, social, political, and economic hurdles, our analysis indicates that harnessing the energy content of non-recycled plastics and paper from MRF residue diverted from landfills in the form of SRF offers environmental benefits,” said the report. “As recycling rates continue to increase and SRF production techniques are further refined, residue-derived SRF will be an important resource to consider as a possible solution to society's long-term energy usage and waste management strategies.”
Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, which funded the study through the sponsoring of the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed.
“Americans send tons of waste to landfills each and every day, meaning that one of America's most abundant and affordable sources of energy ends up buried in landfills,” he said. “It's time we got smart and made energy recovery a central part of America's energy strategy.”
Also participating in the study were two MRFs—Blue River Resources in Wilmington, Del., and Colgate Paper Stock Co. in New Brunswick, N.J. The waste was turned into fuel by Balcones Fuel Technology in Little, Rock, Ark.