Alabama partners to study MSW-to-diesel conversion

By Ryan C. Christiansen
Web exclusive posted Sept. 24, 2008 at 11:15 a.m. CST

The city of Bay Minette, Ala., has been awarded $195,000 to work with Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., and Cello Energy in Bay Minette, Ala., to explore the feasibility of converting the city's municipal solid waste into a synthetic fuel that is similar to No. 2 diesel (ASTM D396 specification) fuel oil.

Bay Minette, Ala., currently spends between $12,000 and $14,000 per month in dumping fees to dispose of household garbage, said Mike Phillips, a member of the Bay Minette City Council. He said the city hopes to reduce its solid waste disposal costs by up to 80 percent by separating its solid waste before dumping. It will then provide its carbon-based feedstock to Cello Energy in exchange for a price break on its fuel oil.

According to David Bransby, a researcher at the Auburn University College of Agriculture, the study will examine the costs and savings related to separating feedstock from the city's solid waste, delivering the feedstock to Cello Energy's 20 MMgy plant for processing, and purchasing the fuel from Cello Energy for use by the city. Feedstock for Cello Energy's operation can include plant biomass, waste wood, and other organic materials, as well as plastics and used tires, Bransby said. He said the study will begin Oct. 1 and the plant is expected to be running at full capacity in November.

So far, Cello Energy representatives have not revealed much to the press about the process that it uses to convert trash to fuel oil. According to an Alabama Department of Environmental Management engineering analysis, feedstock for the plant is first chopped and ground and then fed into a series of pyrolysis reactors. A catalyst is then used to convert the resulting synthesis gas to fuel oil. "Although that is somewhat accurate, it's not 100 percent," said Allen Boykin, president of Cello Energy. He would only say that the catalyst used by the company is a proprietary catalyst that takes approximately 22 to 25 minutes to convert garbage into fuel oil using a continuous process.

"I don't think it's typical, true pyrolysis, but it's definitely catalyst-based," Bransby said. "I think the interesting part about it is that it is anhydrous-it requires zero water, which is a huge environmental advantage. There is no liquid effluent at all because they don't need water on the front end. There is very little in the way of air emissions, as well. I've worked very, very closely with Cello Energy for two years now and I'm very familiar with what they have but, of course, a lot of it is proprietary and I can't really talk much about it. The university has had nothing to do with the technology, but the technology is way ahead of anything I've seen at any university."

Boykin said Cello Energy's technology has been in the making for 12 to 15 years. His father, Dr. Jack Boykin, has been conducting the research and Allen Boykin became involved in 2002 to help bring the system to commercial-scale. He said bench- and pilot-scale testing was previously conducted in Prichard, Ala.