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Waste Management & Research (1996) 14, 311–317

INTERNATIONAL REPORTS

THE “RECYCLING” OF DENSIFIED REFUSE-DERIVED FUEL


H. Alter

U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C. 20062, U.S.A.

(Received 10 July 1995, accepted in revised form 2 September 1995)

People are beginning to look again at densified refuse-derived fuel (d-RDF) for use
in stoker boilers. The several advantages of this form of fuel will not be realized
unless and until improvements are made in its preparation and properties. The
history of d-RDF is reviewed as a way of teaching how to do this.  1996 ISWA

1. Introduction
There is a renewed and growing interest in densified refuse-derived fuel (d-RDF),
certainly evidenced by the second annual survey of the pellet fuel industry (Shaub
1994). This survey includes a report of the use of d-RDF in fluidized combustors,
although another recent review (Murphy 1994), describing the use of other forms of
RDF in fluidized beds, makes no mention of d-RDF. This form of RDF was burned
in a fluidized bed at least as early as the late 1970s in brief trials conducted at the then
National Center for Resource Recovery, Inc. (NCRR).
Compared to other forms of RDF, d-RDF has the advantages of long storage life,
easy to handle, and easy to charge and burn in existing stoker-fired boilers, kilns and
other devices with relatively little modification or capital investment at the boiler plant
for storage and feed mechanisms. Densified RDF has the potential advantage of
supplying smaller scale fluidized bed units. For these reasons, and others, it is a wonder
that d-RDF has not been more than the occasional fuel of last and marginal choice.
There is a “recycling” of interest in this form of fuel. However, one must keep in
mind Santayana’s words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
repeat it”. In that spirit, it is worth reviewing the history of d-RDF (which is arguably
about 100 years old) and projecting how some of the lessons of the past might be used
to advantage.

2. Why is it d-RDF?
The term “refuse-derived fuel” was probably coined by Jerome Collins in 1973 when
he was with the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation. The term
differentiates RDF from other waste-derived fuels, such as from wood, corn stover or
some manufacturing wastes∗. In the past few years, there has been reference to “tyre-
derived fuel” in the literature.
To the author’s knowledge, he coined the term “densified refuse-derived fuel” in a

∗ During the early years of RDF, some people preferred WDF (waste-derived fuel), but the term did not
come into common usage. RDF was more precise for what we were trying to prepare and burn.

0734–242X/96/030311+07 $18.00/0  1996 ISWA


312 H. Alter

Fig. 1. Densified refuse-derived fuel (d-RDF) from several sources. The largest piece is approximately 50 mm
in diameter, the smallest is 8 mm. The dark briquette is compressed RDF-4, the black powder made by the
now closed “Eco-Fuel” process (d-RDF from the author’s collection).

grant proposal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in about 1975. As a trivial
bit of history, the abbreviation d-RDF was used (with the lower case “d”) as a means
of calling attention to this “new” form of fuel in the proposal (which was funded). The
term “densified” was chosen as the generic description to include pelletizing, cubetting,
briquetting or any other means of compressing RDF into something that could be
burned on a grate. Earlier developers of this type of fuel did not call their products
anything in particular beyond a few trade names.
There is a taxonomy or nomenclature for RDF, ranging from RDF-1 (municipal
solid waste as received), through RDF-2 and RDF-3 (MSW that has been shredded
and processed; the number differentiates the product according to particle size), RDF-
5 which is d-RDF, and on through RDF-7 to describe gases derived from municipal
solid waste (MSW)†. Shredded MSW, or some separated fraction of it, is usually the
feedstock for densifying. There is not yet a designation for RDF that may be made
from the “leftovers” at a materials recovery facility (MRF).
Densified RDF can be made in several shapes and sizes and from a variety of wastes.
This is illustrated in Fig. 1, a photograph of some of the d-RDF from the author’s
collection. Many of the pieces are well over 20 years old. The smaller diameter pellets
are generally from industrial wastes. The pellets about 12 mm in diameter and larger
are made from processed MSW. The black “pillow” is densified RDF-4, produced by
the now shut-down “Eco-Fuel” process.

3. The early years of developing d-RDF


The history of solid waste management in the U.S., including the early preparation of
RDF by mechanically processing MSW (in the 1930s), has been published (Melosi
1981). The history of d-RDF has been summarized separately (Alter 1987).
The origin of d-RDF was probably the densification of wood waste. As early as

† The different forms of RDF are described in ASTM E-775, Philadelphia, U.S.A.
Recycling d-RDF 313

Fig. 2. Samples of densified refuse-derived fuel made by Hollander & Cunningham (1972) in a John Deere
hay cubetter. The cubettes were always fragile and fell apart. De-laminating planes are evident.

1880, a patent was issued for compressing sawdust for fuel by heating the sawdust (or
other wood waste) to 65°C and compacting it “to the density of bituminous coal” in
a mold with a steam hammer (Smith 1880). Probably the first densifying of MSW was
described in a 1917 patent for a method of converting refuse into bricks, which were
called “oakcoal”. At about the same time in Britain, d-RDF was made from pulverized
refuse and called “coalesine” (see Melosi 1981). Processing MSW seemed to be in its
infancy at that time, but now-familiar methods were known then. There is a 1924
description of “A Westminster Wonder”; a refuse processing plant for materials recovery
that included trommel screens, shredders and an air classifier (Anon 1976). (There is
no evidence that the plant was ever built.)
Stirrup (1960) described the preparation and properties of briquettes of processed
MSW extruded at rates up to 6 tonnes−1. The process included magnetic separation,
shredding, drying in a suspension drier, and extrusion through a high-pressure bri-
quetting press. A commercial plant for Salford, U.K, was described but apparently
never built. Stirrup (1965) mentioned a few burning tests. The briquettes were in the
form of large cylindrical pieces, described as weighing about 1 kg.
In 1972, Hollander & Cunningham described a 27-tonne hour−1-plant for making d-
RDF in the form of cubettes. Their plant consisted of a shredder, air classifier, screens
and a John Deere alfalfa cubetter (a low-power multiple dye extruder). The cubettes
were approximately 38×38×64 mm and approximately 35 tonnes of these were burned
with coal in trials at a municipal power plant. The Hollander & Cunningham d-RDF
could be formed only at modest throughputs and the cubettes did not stay together
well when the dyes wore. This can be seen in Fig. 2, a photograph of the product of
those early attempts. The de-laminated layers of RDF are visible, as is the end surface
showing that the cubettes almost peeled apart.
A solution to keeping the cubettes together was described by Nelson in two patents
(Nelson 1976, 1977). The key invention was coating the extrusion dyes and press shell
of a John Deere cubetter with a particulate, hard inorganic powder (e.g. tungsten
carbide) by flame spraying. His developments were used in the “BRINI” commercial
314 H. Alter

Fig. 3. Samples of densified refuse-derived fuel (d-RDF) made in a John Deere hay cubetter that had been
modified according to Nelson (1976, 1977). The cubettes are 32 mm2 in cross-section and do not have the
delaminations. Note the straight edges compared to Fig. 2 (d-RDF from the author’s collection).

plants built in Sweden. Figure 3 shows some of the Nelson cubettes made from MSW
or old newspaper. When the dyes and press wheel are flame sprayed, as Nelson described,
the throughput of the machine increases greatly and the feedstock does not have to be
shredded as small as for pellet mills. These cubettes have held together much better
than the Hollander & Cunningham d-RDF, even after about 20 years. The straight
edges are one of the indications of the cubettes’ greater compactness than of those
shown in Fig. 2.
In the late 1970s, NCRR operated a 180-tonne day−1-pilot plant that produced
(among other things) d-RDF from MSW using a California Pellet Mill. Samples were
supplied to many people; large-scale trials were conducted at the Pentagon’s stoker-
fired power plant and some several thousand tonnes were supplied for extensive trials
at a prison power plant in Maryland. (Some of the NCRR d-RDF is included in Fig.
1. These pellets are 12 mm in diameter.)
At the same time that NCRR was making d-RDF, the then Warren Spring Laboratory
(U.K. Department of Trade and Industry) operated a d-RDF pilot plant and helped
construct an MSW commercial processing plant (200 tonnes day−1) that recovered
steel, glass and d-RDF. The fuel was burned in a variety of locations, including home
stoves and open fires. This group did outstanding work, some of which has been
summarized (Jackson 1988). The legacy of this work included several commercial-scale
d-RDF plants in Great Britain.

4. Lessons learned from preparing d-RDF


Many of the lessons learned at the NCRR d-RDF pilot plant have been described in
various Government reports. These results and others have been summarized (Alter
1983). It was not possible to achieve production rates near the rated capacity of the
pellet mill; the mill jammed frequently due to oversized pieces of RDF-3 (the feedstock)
Recycling d-RDF 315

or “stringy” materials or textiles in the RDF-3. The dyes and press wheels wore at
faster rates than desired. These factors raised the estimated cost of pelletizing to a level
which was too high for a commercial operation. In fairness, the fault was not all in
the pellet mill, but also in the feed preparation. For example, passing the shredded
MSW through a trommel screen, prior to the air classifier, would have removed much
of the sand and grit, thus reducing wear and lowering the ash content of the fuel
(removal of “stringy” materials is more problematical).
The feed was MSW (from households) that had been shredded (to about 10 cm) in
a hammer mill, air classified, and the light fraction re-shredded in a vertical mill. A
second shredding step of this sort is expensive and produces (optimally) something
resembling vacuum cleaner dirt that is difficult to handle and move at high rates. The
air classifier is an imperfect separator for some undesirable materials, including sand
and grit. Air classifiers separate on the basis of particle size, density and aerodynamic
characteristics, so that separations for making RDF are imperfect. More detailed
descriptions and data have been given previously in Alter (1983).
The moisture content of the feedstock to a pellet mill (and probably to a cubetter)
is important, and should probably be somewhere about 10 and 25 wt% for the pellet
mill‡. Some experiments (such as Stirrup and the Warren Spring group) used driers,
which is expensive, if not cumbersome. Refuse-derived fuel has a low density, a relatively
low spontaneous ignition temperature, and low thermal conductivity, making it difficult
to dry. It would be much simpler and less expensive to blend MSW from several sources
(e.g. households and offices) in order to control the total moisture.
The d-RDF for burn trials had to be accumulated over long periods. When stored
outdoors (even with covers), the pellets could absorb more than their own weight of
water. For unknown reasons, some piles burst into flames. Temperature measurements
at some spots in the interior of piles were higher than what would be expected from
composting, and the exotherms were hypothesized to be from chemical (as opposed to
biological) reactions, perhaps of oxidants included in the MSW (e.g. nitrates from
fertilizers). The high temperatures were confined to small pockets or seams in the d-
RDF piles but were sometimes high enough to brittle and (seemingly) partially carbonize
some of the pellets.
Several trials were run trying to improve the fuel value of the d-RDF, such as by
the inclusion of used oil, which made the pellets “mushy” and caused them to break
apart. Deliberate additions of waste plastics would also improve the fuel. As a general
rule, pieces of plastic film in feedstock may have caused fracture of the pellets into
shorter lengths. As a general rule, the d-RDF pellets were robust and withstood ordinary
mechanical handling. The pellets could be dropped from large heights onto a hard
surface and survive. A routine test (Alter 1983) for this was developed and the results
expressed as the changes in the length distribution of the pellets.

5. Burning d-RDF
Between 1972 and 1983, there were at least 22 test burns of d-RDF in the U.S.A.,
consuming more than 3100 tonnes. Broadly, these burning trials (and many since then)
have shown that: (1) paper burns quickly and hot; and (2) that the emissions (compared

‡ A working hypothesis is that the moisture content has to be high enough to break the hydrogen bonds
between the cellulose chains and thus plasticize the cellulose to flow in the molds. Too high a moisture
content starts to take the paper toward papier-maché.
316 H. Alter

to coal) are not much changed and probably more a function of the type of emission
controls on the power plant than the composition of the fuel. Neither observation is a
surprise.
A relatively recent report of the combustion of d-RDF confirms these observations
(Livingston et al. 1990). The basic principles for efficient combustion and minimizing
the effects of ash-related operations were concluded from pilot and full-scale trials
burning cylindrical pellets, 15–18 mm diameter. The principal parameter controlling
combustion rate was the primary air-flow rate. Secondary air flows had to be increased,
compared to coal, to produce a shorter, more intense and cleaner flame. The d-RDF
tended to produce a longer flame than coal which, in some shell boilers, caused a
problem with impingement of the flame on upper surfaces. It was reported that the d-
RDF ash had a relatively low fusion temperature, a short fusion range and was
considered to be in the high–severe slagging category. There were few problems with
the handling of the grate ash in industrial-scale plants when good air-supply conditions
were maintained.
Livingston et al. (1990) reported that the physical degradation of the pellets to smaller
pellets and fine particles was important because the operation of the stoker-fired boilers
was sensitive to the size distribution of the fuel supplied to the boiler front. The authors
recommended that further work is required to develop production and quality control
procedures that ensure sufficiently robust d-RDF to withstand conventional handling
practices§.

6. Can interest in d-RDF be recycled?


The resurgent interest in d-RDF must benefit from the lessons of the past. If the
pioneers in the field did not learn how to make d-RDF right 20 and more years ago,
they certainly learned how to do a great many things wrong. Not repeating old mistakes
constitutes many of the lessons to learn if d-RDF is to be commercial.
Building on this, following is a description of how the concept of d-RDF might be
“recycled” into a commercial enterprise. Imagine a private sector plant of about 200-
tonnes day−1-capacity receiving office waste (even after separation of recyclable grades)
and maybe some commercial waste. This will avoid bid delays and the expense of
tendering to municipalities. This waste consists of 90+% paper, so makes an excellent
fuel.
The incoming waste can be passed through a trommel to remove yesterday’s lunch,
soft drink cans, and similar things found in office waste, then passed by a magnetic
separator (if only for paper clips and for safety’s sake), then to a shredder for rough
size reduction, say under 15 cm or so particle size. The shredder might be of a shear
or hogger type. This size feed can go directly into a John Deere cubetter, modified
according to Nelson’s inventions, to produce robust cubettes.
Another advantage of this process and equipment choice is that waste plastic
(including film) can be added so as to boost the calorific value of the fuel. A slight
disadvantage is that the ash content of the d-RDF will be too low to protect stoker
grates, which might not matter depending on the mix of d-RDF and coal, and type of
coal charged to a furnace. Also, this process will easily accommodate certain kinds of

§ Not all of the feed to a pellet mill or cubetter is incorporated in the d-RDF. There are always some fine
particles left. These should be re-circulated to join the feed to the mill, which would improve the final product
being fed to a stoker boiler.
Recycling d-RDF 317

plant scrap, such as coated papers [some are now being converted to d-RDF according
to Shaub (1994)].
An economic analysis and a business plan for this type of process to produce d-
RDF to a definite specification were prepared in 1978. At that time, the plant and
process made an attractive business proposition which was almost capitalized. Perhaps
these concepts can be a start for “recycling” interest in d-RDF in the future.

References
Alter, H. (1983) Materials Recovery from Municiple Waste. Unit Operations in Practice. New
York, U.S.A.: Marcel Dekker, Inc.
Alter, H. (1987) The history of refuse-derived fuels. Resources and Conservation 15, 251–275.
Anon. (1976) A Westminster Wonder. My Magazine, reprinted in Solid Wastes 536 ff., October.
Hollander, H. I. & Cunningham, N. F. (1972) Beneficiated Solid Waste Cubettes as Salvage Fuel
for Steam Generation. Proceedings of the National Incinerator Conference, New York, U.S.A.:
American Society of Mechanical Engineers, pp. 75–86.
Jackson, D. V. (1988) A Review of Developments in the Production and Combustion of Refuse
Derived Fuel. In Energy Recovery Through Waste Combustion (Brown, R. B., Evemy, M. P.
and Ferrero, G. L., eds). London, U.K.: Applied Science Publishers.
Livingston, W. R., Gibson, J. R. & Birch, M. C. (1990) The combustion of pelletised refuse-
derived fuel. Journal of the Institute of Energy, December, 151–159.
Melosi, M. V. (1981) Garbage in the Cities. Refuse, Reform, and the Environment, 1880–1980.
College Station, TX, U.S.A.: A&M University Press, Chapter 6.
Murphy, M. L. (1994) Using fluidized bed boilers for burning refuse-derived fuel. Solid Waste
Technologies, September–October, 34–43.
Nelson, G. (1976) U.S. Patent 3 949 036.
Nelson, G. (1977) U.S. Patent 4 060 363.
Shaub, W. M. (1994) Pellet Fuels: Second Annual Survey of the Status of the Pellet Fuel Industry.
Reston, VA, U.S.A.: Corre, Inc.
Smith, W. H. (1880) U.S. Patent 233 887.
Stirrup, F. L. (1960) Experiments and Research into the Production of Briquetted Fuel from
Refuse. 62nd Annual Conference, Portsmouth and Southsea, U.K. Institute of Public
Cleansing. (The author refers to a paper he presented on the same subject in March 1959.)
Stirrup, F. L. (1965) Public Cleansing: Refuse Disposal. London, U.K.: Pergamon Press.