Ohio-based Vexor Technology is taking its engineered fuel business to the next level by focusing on the quality of its product.
Discarded materials can make an excellent alternative fuel source to meet the high-heat and high-energy demands of industries that traditionally burn coal. While refuse-derived fuel (RDF) has been around for decades, the use of coal alternatives has yet to reach its full potential.
One company in particular, Vexor Technology, Medina, Ohio, has been leading the charge. The company has been perfecting the fuel it produces from nonhazardous waste, industrial scraps and recycling residuals since its founding in 1999. Instead of referring to its product as an RDF, however, Vexor distinguishes its fuel as an engineered fuel (EF), and based on the amount of science that goes into creating specified blends, it is easy to understand what sets it apart from other fuels made from secondary materials.
Vexor President Steve Berry explains the difference between RDF and the company’s trademarked Vexor Engineered Fuel (VEF). “An RDF company tends to leave you with the connotation that it’s a bunch of trash being mixed together that might be successful or might not be successful at being utilized as a coal replacement,” he says, whereas with Vexor’s VEF, “When I tell you we are going to deliver a product with a specific moisture content, ash content and Btu (British thermal unit) value, you are going to get that product.”
Vexor’s VEF also has the distinction of being recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a legitimate fuel source. A letter to the company from the EPA legitimizes the fuel process and recognizes the use of VEF as a nonwaste alternative fuel, under the agency’s Non-Hazardous Secondary Material (NHSM) rule. In order to be considered a nonwaste fuel under the NHSM rule, the fuel product must meet specific processing and legitimacy criteria outlined by the EPA.
Although other companies in the U.S. are producing engineered fuel, Berry says, “I still characterize ourselves as pioneers in this industry because to the best of our knowledge we are the only company that is producing and selling what is characterized as a legitimate engineered fuel today.” In addition, multiple states have issued revised air permits to VEF end users based on lower emissions, adds Berry.
Seal of approval
According to Berry, every product that comes into Vexor’s facilities is pre-approved following a stringent acceptance policy and will be tested and identified as to whether it is suitable for use in VEF. If it can, then the company determines that material’s burn constituents, including the type of contaminants and ash it may produce.
“We test all of our inbound products and all of our outbound products to make sure that we meet a very tight specification for our fuel for our customers,” explains Berry. The company can adjust its fuel blend to accommodate specific customer requests such as reduction in sulfur, ash or carbon monoxide emissions, he adds.
Vexor sells its fuel to customers in the cement, lime and combined heat and power (CHP) industries currently. The company is also working with greenhouses using coal to potentially use VEF as an alternative. Berry says any company that currently consumes coal as its energy source can potentially use Vexor’s fuel product. That includes utilities, although Berry notes utility companies consume a significant quantity of fuel and may be more suited for RDF companies which produce large quantities of fuel.
“I would rather look at us as a boutique supplier of fuel,” Berry says. “We tend to focus and tailor our product specifically to the customer needs and it falls within a very, very tight specification. We prefer looking at our fuel as a very high quality, high-calorific value product that is tailored for the specific customer’s use.”
According to Berry, VEF’s Btu on a per pound basis is 10,000, which is higher than most RDF products and burns in the same range as a high-quality, low-sulfur coal.
Understanding the science
The founders of Vexor all began their careers in the hazardous waste industry and each have various biology and chemistry backgrounds. “We kind of bring the scientific world into our product that we generate on a daily basis,” Berry says. Having stringent requirements for engineered fuel is important from both a regulatory and client standpoint, according to Berry.
Ash buildup inside a cement or lime kiln can increase operating expenses. “Therefore they need to have a clear understanding as to how our product is going to react with their kiln day in and day out,” Berry adds.
At the time the company was founded, Berry says there was a big concern about brownfields and the potential long-term liability for improper disposal of materials.
“So what Vexor had done was establish a company to manage nonhazardous waste so that all of our customers knew where their waste went and how it was being disposed of to minimize the long-term liability to those customers,” explains Berry. As part of a progression, Vexor evolved into product destruction and ultimately into processing for incineration. By around 2003, the founders understood that some of the industrial materials like carbon black, sludges and greasy and oily absorbents had a high-Btu value, and the company began its first foray into the EF business.
Berry describes the company’s view of materials recovery. “One of the important things I think that people need to recognize is we see tremendous value in recycling efforts and recovery of commodities,” he says. “We as an organization don’t want to compete with that.”
He continues, “What we want to do is capture material that comes from a single-stream MRF (material recovery facility) that’s being disposed of either as residue or [because] there is no economic value to the material. We take the material that has no economic value and blend that with nonhazardous industrial compounds like carbon black, soy-based inks and oily materials to make our high-Btu engineered fuel source.”
Some examples Berry gives of materials that cannot be recycled or that lack economic value are waxy cardboard and plastic materials with multiple types of plastics. Label trimmings are another source of feedstock for VEF.
“There are some very large companies like the major film and label manufacturer that we partner with that have never had an economical sustainable solution for some of their materials, where for every production run there are trimmings and adhesives and things of that nature that the traditional recycling company can’t handle,” Berry says. Vexor, on the other hand, can accept these materials, which happen to have a good Btu-value, into its process.
The automotive and parts manufacturers send material to Vexor which they can’t recycle such as the rubber around windows and door seals. “We grind it to a very fine particle size and blend that into our fuel,” says Berry. These materials are combined and blended with the industrial components, then conveyed through a series of shredders, magnets and an air separation system “to ensure you have as high a quality fuel as you could possibly have at the end of the day,” says Berry. The loose VEF is about a 30-millimeter-minus sized material. Vexor is currently producing about 3,000 tons per month of VEF.
Vexor’s first venture into EF was in Holly Hill, South Carolina, where the company was making fuel for Holcim Cement Co. “That operation was a tremendous success and Holcim Cement ultimately bought that operation three years later,” says Berry.
Focusing back on its roots, Vexor returned to Medina where it worked to develop its EF business in northeastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania. The company received authorization from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to supply Cemex with EF product in Wampum, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, in about 2008, with the decline in the economy, that Wampum cement plant was shuttered. Luckily for Vexor, another opportunity came along.
One of Vexor’s biggest customers is Carmeuse, a lime and stone products maker. Vexor has a 10-year contract with the lime producer and received permits that allow for 100-percent coal replacement at its Grand River, Ohio, plant. Vexor delivers about 36,000 tons of VEF to the Grand River, Ohio, facility annually. Now in year two of the contract, Berry says employees of the companies converse by phone daily to allow Vexor to understand the needs of the kiln. The project has received worldwide recognition by earning the “Outstanding Alternative Fuel Project” award at the Eighth Global CemFuels 2014 Conference in Vienna, Austria.
The lime industry has created a steady market for Vexor. Berry explains that unlike the cement industry, which is dependent on the economy and on the construction industry, lime is a varied industry which sells into a multitude of industries such as clothing, paper, agriculture and steel. “Not to say there’s not challenges within that industry, but they haven’t been nearly as adversely impacted as the cement industry,” he says.
Vexor has decided to build on its success with Carmeuse and has recently secured the zoning for a 55,000-square-foot facility in Gary, Indiana. The company is still waiting on authorization from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management but expects to be operational there by the third quarter of 2015. Berry says the facility will produce around 150,000 tons per year of fuel. Carmeuse will be the primary customer of the fuel from the Gary facility, but Berry says the company also has agreements in place with other third-party consumers.
Vexor has other projects it is working on but some are too early in the planning stages to discuss, according to Berry. “We’re not going to stop with just two facilities,” he says.
The company has recently successfully piloted the consumption of its fuel in Montgomery, Alabama, Berry reports. Vexor also submitted a proposal to operate the Medina County Central Processing Facility (CPF) in Ohio. The company committed to investing $11 million dollars to upgrade equipment at the facility, which processes all of the waste in that county. In early November 2014, however, Medina County Commissioners rejected all proposals it received for the operation of the facility. Despite what may be considered a setback, Berry says opportunities still exist for Vexor and the Medina CPF.
“I continue to see us growing as an organization,” says Berry. “We will triple in size over the next year hopefully and continue at that pace for the foreseeable future.”
VEF is permitted for use in seven states and in 13 operations. The company currently employs 40 people. With the addition of the Gary facility and potentially the Medina CPF, employees could soon number 150.
Berry, a Kent State University graduate and Northeast Ohio native who has been in the waste industry since 1984, says his business philosophy is pretty simple: Understand the needs of your customers and exceed their expectations.
That philosophy combined with the scientific expertise that goes into producing VEF seems to be working.
The author is managing editor of Renewable Energy from Waste and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vexor in video
Take a look inside Vexor Technology’s Medina, Ohio, operations at www.REWmag.com/vexor-technology-profile-video.aspx.
Interest in an upgrade
For further reading on the Medina County Central Processing Facility (CFP) and its future, visit www.REWmag.com/medina-county-rejects-mixed-waste-processing-bids.aspx.