Enerkem gets energy traction from trash

August 19, 2009   by Noelle Stapinsky

After more than a century of industrialization and consumption, landfills are brimming with waste, recycling efforts struggle to keep up, governments are about to apply heavier restrictions and limitations on industrial emissions while consumers are encouraged to make greener vehicle choices.

But as demand for the energy that powers our economy continues to strain supply and the search for alternative and cleaner solutions intensifies, trash is starting to look like a golden heap of feedstock.

Enerken transforms syngas into ethanol, using a sequential catalytic conversion process.

Who knew the creators of Back to the Future were on to something when they had Doc rooting through Marty’s trash to find items to fuel his suped-up DeLorian?

In 2006, the federal government introduced a national biofuel mandate for vehicles—one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s election promises—requiring all provinces to achieve at least a 5% bio-ethanol blend at the pumps by 2010.

But in Canada, where corn has been the primary feedstock, there has been an ongoing debate about whether to use it for food or fuel. And despite Canadian farmers and others sinking money into building and operating ethanol plants, there isn’t enough of the additive available and many gasoline producers end up importing it from the US or Brazil.

Enerkem, a Montreal-based advanced biofuels and biochemical company, heard opportunity knock and answered with a technology that converts a variety of waste materials into biofuel.

After several years of research, 3,000 hours of operation and testing 20 different types of feedstock at a pilot plant in Sherbrook, Que., it has launched the first commercial facility that converts waste material into ethanol and methanol.

“We’ve developed a technology that uses residue or waste materials and converts it into synthetic gas [syngas] and then to ethanol for fuel or methanol for chemicals,” says Denis Arguin, Enerkem’s vice-president of engineering.

Located in Westbury, Que.—25 kilometres east of Sherbrooke—the plant uses decommissioned utility poles that have been chemically preserved with arsenic-based materials to produce about 5-million litres of ethanol per year.

The facility is not very large—about 200 by 300 metres—but it’s fully automated and takes just two operators plus 11 support staff to oversee the 24-hour operation. The company’s in-house engineering team designed the equipment, which Arguin says was built to Enerkem’s specs by local fabricators and is automated with a Siemens PCS7 distribution control system.

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