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How Enerkem Completed its Long-Term Vision of Turning Waste into Ethanol

The Montreal-based company will produce over 10 million gallons of ethanol annually at the Edmonton plant when at full capacity.

Waste-to-biofuel firm Enerkem’s Edmonton, Alberta, facility was a long time in the making. After years of development, the company’s first full-scale commercial facility met all operational milestones set by its senior lender in early April. Now the company is poised for its next steps.

The facility turns the city’s nonrecylable and noncompostable trash into methanol and ethanol. The project enables diversion from landfill, cuts gas emissions and helps oil companies meet obligations to use alternative, renewable fuels.

Development started earlier this decade. The first stage opened in 2014 allowing it produce methanol. Last year, the plant shut down briefly so construction of its final stage could be completed enabling the methanol to be converted to ethanol.

The Montreal-based company will produce over 10 million gallons of ethanol annually at the Edmonton plant when at full capacity.

It’s taken years to develop the technology and get the biorefinery fully operational at a commercial scale. Marie-Hélène Labrie, Enerkem’s senior vice president, government affairs and communications, discusses what was entailed. She shares what makes this model unique; their market; and where the company will go next, leveraging what its learned in Edmonton.

Waste360: Briefly describe Enerkem’s thermochemical process and its capabilities.

Marie-Helene Lebrie: Enerkem’s thermochemical process converts nonrecylable household garbage into low-carbon transportation fuel and renewable chemicals to use in textiles, coatings, glue and other products.

The thermochemical process involves preparing feedstock, which  undergoes gasification whereby carbon-rich residue is converted to synthetic gas. The syngas is purified then converted into the final product using our catalytic conversion process.

Waste360: What makes the technology at the new Edmonton plant unique? And what is driving demand for such innovation?

Marie-Helene Lebrie: We produce cellulosic ethanol and biomethanol from nonrecyclable solid waste. No one in the world is doing this. 

Meanwhile, over 60 countries are mandated to have a minimal ethanol content in their gas. There are federal mandates such as the renewable fuel standards, as well as low-carbon fuel standards in California and British Columbia. These regulations are driving demand for biofuels including from unconventional feedstocks, as is the trend toward capping food crop-based ethanol.

Waste360: What were some challenges in developing and implementing the Edmonton plant? How have you addressed them?

Marie-Helene Lebrie: Advanced biorefinery technologies require time to scale up. We went through development phases from lab, to pilot, demo and full-scale plant.

The biggest technology-related challenge occurred when our plant design was completed and datasheets were ready to send to equipment manufacturers for fabrication. Our required equipment types were never manufactured before. They needed to be adapted to our unique needs. For example, the solid waste-handling equipment is usually not adapted for pressure vessels. We worked with our vendors to help them adapt their equipment to our specifications.

To ensure effective deployment, we also built our facilities based on a modular manufacturing approach consisting of 90 prefabricated systems for each production line.

Waste360: Describe the timeframe to develop the technology and first full-scale project and where you are now. What is the ultimate goal, and when do you expect to achieve it?

Marie-Helene Lebrie: Enerkem launched a pilot facility in 2003 to make syngas, methanol and ethanol from municipal solid waste. We moved to industrial demonstration scale in 2009 with syngas production. And we started producing methanol and ethanol in 2011 and 2012 at demonstration scale.

We tested over 20 solid feedstocks and did extensive piloting and demonstration to scale up. In 2014, we inaugurated the full-scale facility in Edmonton, marking the end of the first construction phase. We started producing methanol on a commercial scale in June 2016. The facility is fully operational, and we are adding ethanol, which we plan to sell in volume this summer.

Waste360: Describe your certifications and what they will mean.

Marie-Helene Lebrie: We received International Sustainability and Carbon certification for biofuel products, confirming we meet sustainability criteria of the European Commission as part of their renewable energy directive for biofuels.

We also have International Methanol Producers and Consumers Association certification, meaning we can sell around the world.

Waste360: Does Enerkem have plans for its solid waste-to-biofuel technology beyond Edmonton?

Marie-Helene Lebrie: We are launching the next facility in Quebec and developing a project in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

The Quebec site will be a copycat of the Edmonton model of methanol and ethanol with one production line. There will be two lines in Rotterdam. That plant will be twice the size and focus exclusively on methanol.

Waste360: Who will you sell ethanol to?

Marie-Helene Lebrie: We can sell in Canada and are certifying for U.S. renewable fuel standards. We will sell to oil refineries obligated to blend ethanol. They are interested in advanced ethanol (made from trash) rather than corn-based ethanol, to further lower greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding competing with food and impacting land use.

Waste360: What next?

Marie-Helene Lebrie: We are in discussions with U.S. municipalities to develop biorefineries and are talking to interested partners in China. We would produce methanol, ethanol, or both from garbage, based on demand.

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