Enerkem, the Canadian Oil and Waste Rewind

At the intersection of energy and environment, a number of firms are taking on the global challenge of converting various kinds of waste into biofuels and chemicals.

Montreal, Quebec-based Enerkem is not only an example, but an examplar. Operating with 10 years worth of technological validation under its belt in the area of proprietary thermochemical reclamation, Enerkem engages in depolymerization, or the conversion of polymers – usually plastics – back into their integral ingredients, carbon and hydrogen. Simplified, these processes essentially rewind the 20th century, back to the point where fossil fuels were abundant and there was little or no nonbiodegradable trash. (Who said there are no second chances!)

It’s a good place to be when facing the dual challenges of oil dependence and waste disposal, with the former getting harder to find and extract while the latter gets larger in inverse ratio to the former – leading doomsayers to predict that, by the next millennium, there will be no fossil fuels and earth will be buried in old McDonald’s French fry sleeves and plastic water bottles.

Unlike so many biofuel operations, Enerkem does not use “easy” biomass feedstocks like cane or corn stover, and it certainly doesn’t use food, as happened in the global biofuels industry in 2008, when Mexico’s poor saw the cost of corn tortillas tripling overnight.

Instead, and shunning the uncomplicated path to biofuels, Enerkem uses municipal solid waste, producing in four minutes a syngas which can be repurposed into ethanol and chemical intermediates like methanol (used in making acrylic acid, for example).

This, notes Enerkem’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Communications Marie-Hélène Labrie, helps reduce the levels of waste in the city of Edmonton’s landfills.

On its own, this city – located in the heart of Alberta Province due north of Calgary – already recycles a phenomenal 60 percent of waste. Enerkem, using its pilot plant, can recycle another 30 percent, leaving a mere 10 percent to which must be burned, buried or composted. However, once Enerkem completes its first full-scale waste-to-biofuels commercial plant – in mere days, according to Labrie – Edmonton will be well on its way to achieving near-zero waste status. This is like graduating Magna Cum Laude in sustainability terms, and puts Edmonton on track to challenge even ultra “green” San Francisco, which is well on its way to zero waste by 2020.

Enerkem also operates 2 other plants in Quebec, the first a commercial demonstration facility in Westbury, the second another pilot plant in Sherbrooke. Westbury recycles used utility poles into 5 million litres (1.3 million gallons) of biofuel per year. The Sherbrooke facility is a scaled-down version of the new Edmonton commercial plant, and has been used to “sample” the efficacy of 25 different types of feedstocks including recycled plastics, waste, sludge, wood chips, pet coke, and straw.

Working closely with the University of Sherbrooke, the pilot plant is designed to R&D depolymerization processes and chemicals with the aim of one day finding that elusive but highly desirable state where used anything can be reduced to its molecular base. In the interim, researchers work with solids, liquids and everything in between. It doesn’t sound like a very appetizing job, but for those who see waste reduction as the apotheosis of 21st century civilization, it is probably more than a job: it’s a calling.

It certainly is for Labrie. Enerkem, founded by Esteban Chornet, CTO, and Vincent Chornet, a father and son duo, is a private company. Labrie, who sees it as a lateral promotion from the aerospace industry and her position at CAE (a global leader in modeling, simulation and training for civil aviation and defense), says quite frankly that Enerkem is a “part of the future she sees for herself”. So the term “calling” may not be that farfetched after all.

With its facilities in Pontotoc, Mississippi, and Varennes, Quebec, Enerkem clearly feels that it is solidly grounded in its proprietary waste-to-fuels/chemicals process.

“It’s time to reach out.” Says Labrie, who likely has read (and agreed with) the words of English poet Robert Browning.

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

On a final note, Enerkem has also conquered the high-temperature requirements of most depolymerization. The plants can, at relatively low temperatures and pressures, reduce greenhouse gases by more than 60 percent when compared to the production of gasoline. That by itself has to be a winner in the race to sustainability.

That the process also meets or exceeds stringent air emissions standards and minimizes water use by reusing it in a closed circuit is merely frosting on the cake when meeting Canada’s 2010 5 percent renewable content in the national gasoline pool. Not to mention the United States’ federal requirement for 16.55 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be blended into fuel supplies in 2014.

Correction: The Edmonton plant is a full-scale recycling plant, and the 10-percent waste that can’t be recycled is either burned or buried, per Enerken Director of Communications Annie Paré.


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