A large oil refinery at dusk.

Trash is biofuel treasure; Enerkem uses Alberta as a launching pad for expansion

Clean Technology
Published On
August 31, 2020

Enerkem’s Edmonton facility, with its tall tanks hidden among a web of steam beams and railings, is easy to lose among the many other industrial sites that sit just off the Anthony Henday, east of the city. But the facility marks a huge step forward — the first commercial facility in the world to turn municipal trash into biofuel. And that’s attracted a lot of interest, both in Canada and beyond.

“We could probably make a whole other business out of it, if we made people pay for a tour,” says Michel Chornet, Enerkem’s Executive Vice President of Engineering, Innovations and Operations.

Canada creates a massive amount of trash – about 13 million tonnes of it in 2008, according to the Conference Board of Canada. That was enough to put Canada ahead of other 17 countries when calculating municipal waste per capita. And while other sources of waste have cleaned up their act since then, garbage from homes has actually gone up. In 2016, Statscan estimated 282 kilograms of residential waste was generated for every person in Canada, up from 269 kilograms in 2002. 

While some of that waste gets diverted to recycling programs and composting facilities, the majority of it ends up in landfills or incinerators, both of which have large environmental impacts.

For the past two decades, Enerkem has been trying to find a new use for this endless stream of trash. By turning waste into biofuels, not only would there be less waste headed to the landfill, but it would also offer a more environmentally friendly way of producing fuel and chemicals for industry. 

“We knew in the future there would be a mandate for biofuels,” he said. “We could resolve two problems at one time.”

The company found success with a pilot project in Quebec. But the next hurdle was a big one. They had to show that the process not only worked but that it could be scaled up to be commercially viable. 

The chance to test it out came when Enerkem was approached by the City of Edmonton. The city had already built a reputation for being on the forefront of waste management and now it had pledged itself to an ambitious goal: diverting 90% of its municipal waste away from the landfill. 

Some of this could be done through recycling and composting programs. But that still leaves a lot of waste with nowhere to go: things like plastics, Styrofoam and normally recyclable items that are in poor condition. 

Fortunately, Chornet says, that’s exactly the material that works well for biofuel.

“They didn’t want to have to build another landfill,” he says. “People see it as a waste, we see it as a carbon resource,” he says. 

The whole process is shockingly quick. Once the recyclables, compost and metal has been removed, it’s brought to Enerkem’s facility. First, the waste is sorted and shredded and then sent into a gasifier where it is turned into synthetic gas (or syngas).

From there, the syngas is cleaned, purified and refined until it is to the point where it can either be turned into biofuels — like liquid methanol or ethanol — or in high-grade syngas that can later be made into chemicals like ammonia. The entire process takes about 5 minutes. 

The plant is now responsible for diverting about 30% of Edmonton’s waste, Chornet says.

The facility’s success drew a lot of attention.

“It’s a big step for us,” he says. “It’s a project that has already led to a lot of other partnerships and attention. We’re the only one who has been able to convert waste for that scale into chemical and biofuels.”

One of the most important partnerships has been Enerkem’s collaboration with Suncor, which uses the biofuel created by the plant for transportation. Chornet says the energy giant “has a lot of trucks” and biofuel offers a greener way of keeping them on the road. As well, he says Suncor has provided vital technical expertise to help refine Enerkem’s technology and make their own operations more efficient. 

“It’s a great partnership. They are an operator, we’re technologists. They bring a lot of common sense and pragmatic information to how we operate.”

That partnership has also come with a big investment. A little over a year ago, Suncor joined the company’s existing investors in putting another $76.3 million into the company to expand to other regions. Last summer, Enerkem started preparatory work on a second waste-to-biofuel plant outside Varennes, Quebec.

Chornet says that the company is also looking towards other cities within Canada, although he said they weren’t ready to go into any specifics. As well, Enerkem is currently developing facilities in the Netherlands and Spain. 

As they do branch out across the country, he says the Edmonton experiment will serve as a blueprint for other facilities. 

From the start, Enerkem’s goal has always been to design a process that was easy to transfer to new cities. The “core technology” remains the same, according to Chornet, and modular construction means that new facilities can be spun up quickly based on the experience gained from the Alberta plant. 

Edmonton’s success also opened opportunities for other industries. Chornet says many of the visitors touring the Alberta plant hail from sectors that they hadn’t considered before, looking to see if Enerkem’s process could lead to turning waste into other useful products. 

“One of the things that really came from Edmonton was interest from other parties. It opened the door to other things – can we do aviation fuel? Can we do plastics?” he says.

“It generated a bunch of innovation. It’s gone even beyond our expectations.”