Concept of Zero Waste and Role of MRFs

zero-waste-MRFCommunities across the world are grappling with waste disposal issues. A consensus is emerging worldwide that the ultimate way to deal with waste is to eliminate it. The concept of Zero Waste encourages redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused, thereby systematically avoiding and eliminating the volume and toxicity of waste and materials.

The philosophy of Zero Waste strives to ensure that products are designed to be repaired, refurbished, re-manufactured and generally reused. Among key zero waste facilities are material recovery facilities, composting plants, reuse facilities, wastewater/biosolids plants etc.

Material recovery facilities (MRFs) are an essential part of a zero waste management program as it receives separates and prepares recyclable materials for marketing to end-user manufacturers. The main function of the MRF is to maximize the quantity of recyclables processed, while producing materials that will generate the highest possible revenues in the market. MRFs can also process wastes into a feedstock for biological conversion through composting and anaerobic digestion.

A materials recovery facility accepts materials, whether source separated or mixed, and separates, processes and stores them for later use as raw materials for remanufacturing and reprocessing. MRFs serve as an intermediate processing step between the collection of recyclable materials from waste generators and the sale of recyclable materials to markets for use in making new products. There are basically four components of a typical MRF: sorting, processing, storage, and load-out. Any facility design plan should accommodate all these activities which promote efficient and effective operation of a recycling program. MRFs may be publicly owned and operated, publicly owned and privately operated, or privately owned and operated.

There are two types of MRFs – dirty and clean. A dirty MRF receives mixed waste material that requires labor intense sorting activities to separate recyclables from the mixed waste. A clean MRF accepts recyclable materials that have already been separated from the components in municipal solid waste (MSW) that are not recyclable. A clean MRF reduces the potential for material contamination.

A typical Zero Waste MRF (ZWMRF) may include three-stream waste collection infrastructure, resource recovery center, reuse/recycling ecological part, residual waste management facility and education centers.

The primary objective of all MRFs is to produce clean and pure recyclable materials so as to ensure that the commodities produced are marketable and fetch the maximum price. Since waste streams vary in composition and volume from one place to another, a MRF should be designed specifically to meet the short and long term waste management goals of that location. The real challenge for any MRF is to devise a recycling strategy whereby no residual waste stream is left behind.

The basic equipment used in MRFs are conveyors & material handling equipment to move material through the system, screening equipment to sort material by size, magnetic separation to remove ferrous metals, eddy current separation to remove non-ferrous metals, air classifiers to sort materials by density, optical sorting equipment to separate plastics or glass by material composition, and baling equipment to prepare recovered material for market. Other specialized equipment such as bag breakers, shredders and sink-float tanks can also be specified as required by application.

Overview of Biomass Handling Equipment

The physical handling of biomass fuels during collection or at a processing plant can be challenging to conveying equipment designers, particularly for solid biomass. Biomass fuels tend to vary with density, moisture content and particle size (some even being stringy in nature) and can also be corrosive. Therefore biomass fuel handling equipment is often a difficult part of a plant to adequately design, maintain and operate.

The design and equipment choice for the fuel handling system, including preparation and refinement systems is carried out in accordance with the plant configuration. This is of special importance when the biomass is not homogeneous and contains impurities, typically for forest and agro residues. Some of the common problems encountered have been the unpopular design and undersized fuel handling, preparation and feeding systems. The fuel handling core systems and equipment are dependent on both the raw fuel type and condition as well as on the conversion/combustion technology employed. The core equipments in a biomass power plant include the following:

  1. Fuel reception
  2. Fuel weighing systems
  3. Receiving bunkers
  4. Bunker discharge systems (stoker, screw, grab bucket)
  5. Fuel preparation
  6. Fuel drying systems
  7. Crushers
  8. Chippers
  9. Screening systems
  10. Shredding systems
  11. Grinding systems (for pulverised fuel burners)
  12. Safety systems (explosion relieve, emergency discharge, fire detections etc)
  13. Fuel transport and feeding
  14. Push floors
  15. Belt feeders
  16. Conveyers, Elevators
  17. Tube feeders
  18. Fuel hoppers and silos (refined fuel)
  19. Hopper, bunker and silo discharge
  20. Feeding stokers
  21. Feeding screws
  22. Rotary valves

To enable any available biomass resource to be matched with the end use energy carrier required (heat, electricity or transport fuels) the correct selection of conversion technologies is required. Since the forms in which biomass can be used for energy are diverse, optimal resources, technologies and entire systems will be shaped by local conditions, both physical and socio-economic in nature. Since the majority of people in developing countries will continue using biomass as their primary energy source well into the next century, it is of critical importance that biomass-based energy truly can be modernized to yield multiple socioeconomic and environmental benefits.

Biomass Pelletization Process

Biomass pellets are a popular type of biomass fuel, generally made from wood wastes, agricultural biomass, commercial grasses and forestry residues. In addition to savings in transportation and storage, pelletization of biomass facilitates easy and cost effective handling. Dense cubes pellets have the flowability characteristics similar to those of cereal grains. The regular geometry and small size of biomass pellets allow automatic feeding with very fine calibration. High density of pellets also permits compact storage and rational transport over long distance. Pellets are extremely dense and can be produced with a low moisture content that allows them to be burned with very high combustion efficiency.

Biomass pelletization is a standard method for the production of high density, solid energy carriers from biomass. Pellets are manufactured in several types and grades as fuels for electric power plants, homes, and other applications. Pellet-making equipment is available at a variety of sizes and scales, which allows manufacture at domestic as well industrial-scale production. Pellets have a cylindrical shape and are about 6-25 mm in diameter and 3-50 mm in length. There are European standards for biomass pellets and raw material classification (EN 14961-1, EN 14961-2 and EN 14961-6) and international ISO standards under development (ISO/DIS 17225-1, ISO/DIS 17225-2 and ISO/DIS 17225-6).

Process Description

The biomass pelletization process consists of multiple steps including raw material pre-treatment, pelletization and post-treatment. The first step in the pelletization process is the preparation of feedstock which includes selecting a feedstock suitable for this process, its filtration, storage and protection. Raw materials used are sawdust, wood shavings, wood wastes, agricultural residues like straw, switchgrass etc. Filtration is done to remove unwanted materials like stone, metal, etc. The feedstock should be stored in such a manner that it is away from impurities and moisture. In cases where there are different types of feedstock, a blending process is used to achieve consistency.

The moisture content in biomass can be considerably high and are usually up to 50% – 60% which should be reduced to 10 to 15%. Rotary drum dryer is the most common equipment used for this purpose. Superheated steam dryers, flash dryers, spouted bed dryers and belt dryers can also be used. Drying increases the efficiency of biomass and it produces almost no smoke on combustion. It should be noted that the feedstock should not be over dried, as a small amount of moisture helps in binding the biomass particles. The drying process is the most energy intensive process and accounts for about 70% of the total energy used in the pelletization process.

Schematic of Pelletization of Woody Biomass

Before feeding biomass to pellet mills, the biomass should be reduced to small particles of the order of not more than 3mm.  If the pellet size is too large or too small, it affects the quality of pellet and in turn increases the energy consumption. Therefore the particles should have proper size and should be consistent. Size reduction is done by grinding using a hammer mill equipped with a screen of size 3.2 to 6.4 mm. If the feedstock is quite large, it goes through a chipper before grinding.

The next and the most important step is pelletization where biomass is compressed against a heated metal plate (known as die) using a roller. The die consists of holes of fixed diameter through which the biomass passes under high pressure. Due to the high pressure, frictional forces increase, leading to a considerable rise in temperature. High temperature causes the lignin and resins present in biomass to soften which acts as a binding agent between the biomass fibers. This way the biomass particles fuse to form pellets.

The rate of production and electrical energy used in the pelletization of biomass  are strongly correlated to the raw material type and processing conditions such as moisture content and feed size. The The average energy required to pelletize biomass is roughly between 16 kWh/t and 49kWh/t. During pelletization, a large fraction of the process energy is used to make the biomass flow into the inlets of the press channels.

Binders or lubricants may be added in some cases to produce higher quality pellets. Binders increase the pellet density and durability. Wood contains natural resins which act as a binder. Similarly, sawdust contains lignin which holds the pellet together. However, agricultural residues do not contain much resins or lignin, and so a stabilizing agent needs to be added in this case. Distillers dry grains or potato starch is some commonly used binders. The use of natural additives depends on biomass composition and the mass proportion between cellulose, hemicelluloses, lignin and inorganics.

Due to the friction generated in the die, excess heat is developed. Thus, the pellets are very soft and hot (about 70 to 90oC). It needs to be cooled and dried before its storage or packaging. The pellets may then be passed through a vibrating screen to remove fine materials. This ensures that the fuel source is clean and dust free.

The pellets are packed into bags using an overhead hopper and a conveyor belt. Pellets are stored in elevated storage bins or ground level silos. The packaging should be such that the pellets are protected from moisture and pollutants. Commercial pellet mills and other pelletizing equipment are widely available across the globe.