Enerkem is a privately owned Canadian company pioneering the development and production of next generation biofuels and green chemicals. David Soyka reports on a unique clean gasification and catalysis technology that converts sorted municipal solid waste and biomass residues into second generation ethanol, other renewable transportation fuels and green chemicals.
Well, we’ve been here before. The price of a barrel of crude oil is reaching unprecedented levels, there’s pain at the pump when it seems that filling up your car requires a small business loan and politicians are clamoring for alternative fuel sources to lessen dependence on foreign oil sources.
That was back in the 1970s. Then, the price of gasoline stabilized at a reasonable level, and all the enthusiasm for alternative fuel production kind of got lost amid the infectious giddiness of prosperity.
Well, flash forward to 2009, and while the prosperity fever has certainly broken, the one bright spot is that fossil fuels are relatively inexpensive again. Without the economic incentive of high oil prices, will history repeat itself?
Dino Milli, vice president for business development of Enerkem, a Canadian-based leader in the development and production of non-petroleum sourced biofuels, is confident that it won’t be a case of déjà vu all over again.
“True, crude oil prices have come down considerably. But it’s much different this time. For one thing, the new Obama administration has made it clear that the development of alternative fuels is a priority, both as a way to lessen dependence on foreign oil and as a means for jobs creation. Secondly, industry today is increasingly conscious of doing more to be green, both because it’s good corporate citizenship and, at the same time, it’s good for business as consumers tend to favor companies that promote environmentally-friendly practices.”
Equally important to more widespread use of alternative fuels is innovative, cost-effective technology. Unlike first-generation biofuels, or agrofuels, produced from sugar-rich crops such as corn and sugar cane, Enerkem’s gasification, sequential gas conditioning and catalysis technology converts sorted municipal solid waste, agricultural and forest residues into ethanol, green chemicals and other second-generation biofuels that achieve a number of environmental benefits. Indeed, Enerkem’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Esteban Chornet, was recently awarded the Green Fuel Award by the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association in recognition of his contributions to the advancement of non-fossil, eco-friendly fuel resources.
Headquartered in Montreal, with engineering offices in Sherbrooke, Quebec, the privately owned Enerkem produces second-generation biofuels using a thermo-chemical gasification process to produce synthetic gas (syngas) of the same quality as natural gas, which is subsequently converted into alcohol, such as methanol and ethanol, but is also capable of producing other second-generation fuels such as synthetic diesel, synthetic gasoline, and dimethyl ether.
Enerkem’s gasification and catalytic synthesis technology converts one ton of raw material (sorted municipal solid waste, construction and demolition wood, treated wood, and forest residues) into 360 liters (95 gallons) of cellulosic ethanol. “That’s enough fuel to drive about 2500 kilometers (1550 miles), or the distance between Los Angeles to Houston,” Milli points out.
GREENER SHADE OF GREEN
The benefits of this process are numerous. “Because Canada is itself a big oil producer, we don’t have the issue that the United States has in seeking to reduce dependence on foreign oil sources. While Canada has set of goal that 5 percent of all energy consumption will derive from biofuels, the United States has been much more aggressive, with an expectation of 20 percent biofuel usage by 2010. But, even aside from reducing reliance on fossil fuels, renewable biofuels are good for the environment. First, you’re reducing capacity strain on landfills by using material that would otherwise take up space in the ground; furthermore, while we do produce some inert byproduct, it is converted to an aggregate that can be used in construction, so there is nothing we do that has to be landfilled. Second, gasification requires less energy than it produces, so you’re actually improving energy utilization. Third, it not only requires very little water, depending on the raw materials used, it can actually produce potable water as a byproduct. Finally, it reduces the production of carbon dioxide, which is believed to be a significant cause of climate change, by more than three tons for each dry ton of municipal solid waste processed.”
Milli explains, “The advantages of our approach, compared to high-severity oxygen gasifiers typically used to produce renewable biofuels, is we can easily switch from feedstock to construction or other waste products without any adjustments. Also, we can take any solid material without pelletization, as well as liquids and slurries. At the same time, we can produce a variety of products. So, we can respond to local market conditions on a dime, both in terms of our raw materials and our output.”
He adds, “Also, our technology is modular and scalable to economically process both moderate and large volumes. You could start a site with one module, and then easily add modules as volumes increase. Moreover, it allows you to set up smaller, decentralized plants that are closer to feedstock sources. We’re looking at a potential project in Montreal, for example, which is a city on an island connected by bridges. A series of strategically placed facilities would have a potentially huge impact on reducing waste management costs. Because you don’t have to haul material from multiple locations needed to maintain the efficiency of a single high-capacity gasification operation, you’ve got lower transportation expenses. And, of course, if you aren’t trucking a lot of stuff around, you’re also reducing vehicle pollution. It’s a win/win: more efficient logistics management that is less costly and more environmentally friendly and that results in a sustainable product.”
In addition, Milli points out that “we expect to hire about 25 to 50 people at each plant comprised of mechanics, engineers and other skilled people, so an additional side benefit of any of our undertakings is that we contribute to the local economy in offering new job opportunities.”
Enerkem has pursued an aggressive growth strategy since initiating its first pilot program at Sherbrooke in 2003, which has logged more than 3,500 hours of operation, using more than 20 types of feedstock. Its first commercial-scale plant, located in Westbury, Quebec, was started in October 2007 and became mechanically complete in December 2008. The Westbury plant is the world’s first ethanol plant to use the unconventional material of treated wood from used electricity poles. It is operated by a team of 13 people and is expected to produce five million liters (1.3 million gallons) of second-generation ethanol annually.
The company has also signed a 50/50 partnership agreement with Canada’s leading ethanol producer, GreenField Ethanol, to design, build and operate plants using Enerkem technology. The first major project underway is a 25-year agreement with Edmonton, Alberta to convert the city’s sorted solid waste after recycling and composting a minimum of 100,000 tons per year, to produce 36 million liters (9.5 million gallons) of biofuels annually. It is also expected to reduce Alberta’s carbon dioxide footprint by more than six million tons over the next 25 years, the equivalent of removing 12,000 cars off the road every year.
“This actually came about as a solution to a landfill problem,” Milli notes. “We expect to divert 90 percent of residential waste from being landfilled, which will make Edmonton the first North American city to reach that kind of recycling milestone. This is also the world’s first agreement between an urban center and a biofuel producer to turn municipal waste into ethanol.”
GreenField Ethanol and Enerkem are jointly responsible for financing the project and for constructing, owning, and operating the plant at the Edmonton Waste Management Center. The city of Edmonton and the Alberta Energy Research Institute (AERI) are contributing an initial $20 million to the venture. Edmonton will also contribute $50 million to a related processing facility and research facility.”
According to energy consultant Neil Rauauser writing in The Cutting Edge News, “The payback on the $70 million investment should come very quickly, even with the currently depressed oil prices – perhaps in as little as seven to 10 years.”
In the meantime, Enerkem continues to invest in research and development in a close relationship with the University of Sherbrooke to further refine its technologies and reduce the cost of high quality biofuels. “We currently have 55 employees, who are mostly engineers, and as we continue to expand, that number will probably rise to 100 or so,” Millis notes. “We do not use any external engineering group. In addition to offering our second-generation biofuels production technology, we see ourselves as a project developer, with the capability to integrate all phases of an initiative, from securing sites and feedstock to engineering and managing plant construction and operations.”
He adds, “GreenField is a valuable partner for us, but our business model is to find suitable partners in strategic locations where we can sell our methanol and second-generation ethanol, as well as other high-value products, on a contract basis to fuel blenders and industrial customers. Right now, petroleum refiners are under mandates to blend gasoline with ethanol, so that’s our primary target market. We’re looking at additional sites in Canada, and are particularly interested in expanding to the United States.”
In the past, people talked a lot about alternative energy sources. Enerkem has “walked the talk” with an approach that integrates a “waste not, want not” philosophy with advanced, costeffective technology that is not only good for business, but good for the planet.