Fueling Sustainability

Features - Waste & Residue Energy Markets Series

Balcones Fuel Technology’s ability to convert postindustrial scrap into fuel cubes is appealing to its customers’ green side.

March 12, 2013
Kristin Smith

In today’s business world where the emphasis is on zero waste, reducing carbon footprints and environmentally friendly practices, companies like Balcones Fuel Technology (BFT), Little Rock, Ark., are helping companies achieve their sustainability goals. The division of Balcones Resources, Austin, Texas, is providing an outlet other than a landfill for industrial scrap.

BFT General Manager Jay Saxton describes these materials as “nonrecyclable, postindustrial, nonchlorinated co-products.” The company is using them to produce fuel cubes.

Saxton says, “We seek out these feedstocks so that we can control the critical standards required for our fuel. We are looking for dry, high Btu (British thermal unit) material with little ash (noncombustibles) and low sulfur content.”

He says BFT avoids using chlorinated plastics in its fuel product because of their detrimental impact on most combustion operations and the environment. “Our fuel cubes are typically a mixture of plastic, mainly polyethylene and cellulosic fiber,” he describes.

The alternative fuels facility was designed and built by Balcones employees, who also operate the plant. BFT has been producing fuel cubes for the past 10 years. Saxton says not much has changed during that time in both the makeup of the cubes and the way in which they are made.

A Patented Process

The process of making the fuel begins on the tipping floor, where the material is loosely separated by type. An experienced skid steer operator blends the material on the floor before loading it onto a conveyor and through a grinder. The material is put onto a metering bin for more thorough blending.

The plant consists of sizing and shredding equipment, densification and cubing equipment and a truckload-out system. Balcones holds three U.S. patents on the process control system it developed to operate the plant. The plant is designed to handle 2,500 tons of material per month and is currently processing about 1,500 tons per month.

The engineered solid fuel can be co-fired with coal or wood/hog fuel in standard stoker boilers. Currently, the majority of companies that use the fuel are nearby paper mills and some small power generators.

“The only way to make this work is to work with the nearest users. In Arkansas, paper mills are the closest ones,” Saxton says. “If we were in an area with high power generation and less paper manufacturing, that would change.”

Saxton adds that the electrical provider in the area currently has no interest in reducing its coal consumption. “A lot of guys don’t want to change their system,” he says. “A different Btu value changes the rates at which they are burning the fuel, and they don’t want to do that.”

Stiff Competition
Not only is BFT up against companies who aren’t interested in introducing new fuels into their boilers, the company also has to compete with the price of other forms of fuel. There is of course an expense involved with producing the fuel cubes. BFT charges a tipping fee for the materials it accepts to help offset those production expenses. But that also puts limits on the companies that are willing to pay to have BFT take its material.

“It takes a company that is willing to try to reduce its landfill tonnage,” Saxton says. “If they don’t, then the landfill is going to make more sense economically.”

Saxton says he wishes BFT could charge less than the landfill or nothing at all, but the price of electricity would have to go down and the price of natural gas would have to go up. “It’s unfortunate we are competing with natural gas on the sales side. It is very inexpensive right now,” he says.

Another fuel BFT is competing with is bark. The timber industry debarks trees before making lumber or chips. The bark is then used as a fuel. “It really doesn’t have much else of a use,” Saxton explains. He adds that bark doesn’t have a very high Btu value. “There is a lot of moisture. Our fuel has a lot lower moisture and more Btu per pound,” he says.

The Benefits
For those companies committing to reducing their waste, Saxton says BFT can provide a “total, one-stop, resource recovery program.” He says, “We will always seek the highest value for our customers’ material. If traditional recycling markets are unavailable, we can provide a zero-waste, nonlandfill solution.”

Saxton says BFT has never refused to accept material from its contracted customers. The company is currently converting 18,000 tons of material per year into fuel cubes.

“In addition to providing a zero-waste solution, our process also offers the complete destruction of the customer’s material,” Saxton says. “This added-value service is of growing importance to many companies.”

As more and more companies adopt policies to reduce and eliminate waste, BFT is eager to help them achieve their objectives.

“We’ve got three different outlets for material here that divert tonnage from landfill, and a lot of businesses are happy that we offer these services because it helps them achieve either mandated goals or voluntary goals for reducing their landfill tonnage,” Saxton says.


A “Dirty” Word

Makers of engineered fuels, fuel cubes and fuel pellets derived from discarded materials have had to tow the line with how they describe the fuel they produce, making sure they avoid using the word waste. Pending Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum achievable control technology (MACT) regulations will make it necessary for boiler operators to use only “non-waste” fuels.

“There’s a thin line with the EPA as far as scrap and waste,” says Balcones Fuel Technology (BFT) General Manager Jay Saxton. “There is not much difference between the two, but as far as the EPA is concerned, when you burn it, there is.”

The Little Rock, Ark.-based company makes fuel cubes using industrial scrap that cannot be recycled.

Saxton says, “Balcones Fuel Technology is working with several companies to provide the necessary information and background to assure that our source-separated, nonrecyclable, postindustrial co-product is determined to be a nonwaste fuel.”

This article first appeared in Winter 2012 edition of Renewable Energy from Waste, a sister publication of Recycling Today. The author is managing editor of Renewable Energy from Waste and can be contacted at ksmith@gie.net.

Photos: Ken West Photography