MONTREAL—Making useable energy from waste sounds like a utopian concept from a science fiction movie set far in the future: too good to be true.
But here in Canada it’s actually happening.
Enerkem, a Montreal-based firm started in 2000, has commercialized technology that derives energy and chemical feedstocks from a wide variety of non-recyclable municipal solid waste. This includes industrial, commercial and institutional solid waste and construction and demolition debris.
Enerkem’s proprietary technology converts the mixed textiles, plastics, fibers, wood and other non-recyclable materials into chemical-grade syngas, and then into fuel.
Cellulosic ethanol, to be precise.
“Enerkem is considered the first company to have developed a green chemistry process capable of breaking down waste materials that are chemically and structurally heterogeneous and converting them into a pure, chemical-grade, stable and homogeneous syngas, which we then condition so that it can be converted into advanced biofuels and renewable chemicals,” explains Marie-Hélène Labrie, Enerkem’s vice-president of communications.
Methanol is first derived from waste feedstock as a chemical building block for the production of ethanol. But Enerkem can sell this methanol as an end-product, or use it as a key intermediate to produce other renewable chemicals.
“Methanol has many usages in the chemical industry,” says Enerkem director of communications Annie Paré. “It is also used for windshield washer fluid.”
These industrial chemicals include methanol and other chemical intermediates that form everyday products such as textiles, coatings, adhesives and paints, to name a few. Paré references a ‘Chemical Markets Report’ that states the global renewable chemicals market will be worth US$59 billion in 2014.
A full-scale Enerkem waste-to-biofuels facility is now being built in Edmonton, with another under development in Pontotoc, Mississippi and yet another ready to break ground later this year in Varennes, Quebec. This facility, called VANERCO and to be operated by GreenField Ethanol, will employ between 30 to 40 engineers, technicians, operators and other staff. Enerkem also currently operates a commercial demonstration facility in Westbury, Quebec and a pilot plant in Sherbrooke.
“Our Edmonton facility is the very first collaboration in the world between a waste-to-biofuels producer and a metropolitan centre (the City of Edmonton) to address waste disposal challenges,” notes Paré. “It will be operational by this summer.”
And more plants will come. “There is strong increased interest from cities in alternatives to landfilling waste,” Paré explains. “Large industrial companies, including chemical companies, are also very interested in sustainable energy solutions and producing greener everyday products.”
The technology developed by Enerkem goes beyond diverting solid waste from landfills and creating energy from it. Through the use of the cellulosic ethanol made by Enerkem’s technology, greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced.
It’s estimated the VANERCO project will reduce the Quebec’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 110,000 metric tonnes of CO2 every year, meeting the Government of Québec’s commitment to reduce GHG emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, under the province’s 2006-2012 Climate Change Action Plan.
The company’s breakthrough technology was initially inspired by the research of Dr. Esteban Chornet, professor emeritus (chemical engineering) at the Université de Sherbrooke. “Dr. Chornet actually conceived the idea for the Enerkem technology while observing his father using wood waste from his sawmill to make electricity in the late 1930’s in Mallorca, Spain,” notes Labrie.
Together, Chornet and his son Vincent brought the technology platform to market, a four-step thermochemical process that includes feedstock preparation, gasification, cleaning and conditioning of syngas, and catalytic synthesis of fuel.
Only a relatively low temperature and pressure are needed to operate the entire system, and the first phase of the Enerkem process is auto-thermal, which means the heat required is created by the chemical reaction itself.
Astonishingly, the Enerkem process produces more than four times the energy required to operate. “This means for one unit of energy used to operate the plant, we produce four units of usable energy in the form of ethanol,” Paré notes.
Challenges and outlook
Labrie says the biggest challenge for Enerkem – and in her opinion, for the cleantech sector in general – has been to raise the private capital to get their tech to the commercialization phase. She says the company’s business model, rigorous scale-up plan and solid team has enabled them to meet this challenge – to attract strong private investors, including venture capital funds, institutional funds and industrial partners.
The company is majority-owned by investors keen on clean technology such as Waste Management, Braemar Energy Ventures, Investissement Québec, Valero, Cycle Capital, The Westly Group, Fonds de solidarité FTQ and Fondaction CSN.
Enerkem believes the demand for ethanol will continue to grow in the coming years. “The advanced ethanol market is driven by a number of factors,” Paré says, naming government policies, private investments, infrastructure development such as higher ethanol blends, as well as technologies reaching the commercial deployment phase.
She says consumers are continuing to ask for more choice at the pump while car manufacturers are working to improve fuel economy, an area in which ethanol can certainly help by delivering high octane ratings and lower emissions. “We equally observe a high level of interest and a growing demand in international markets for advanced biofuels and renewable chemicals,” Labrie adds. “Moreover, ethanol should continue to be cheaper than gasoline.”
Enerkem also sees the overall future of Canada’s cleantech sector as bright. “The Canadian clean technology industry has over 700 companies comprised primarily of small and medium companies, and over 74 per cent of these companies are exporters,” says Labrie.
“According to Analytica Advisors, this sector is expected to continue to grow significantly and has the potential to become a $32 billion market by 2022.”