Solid Waste & Recycling

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Fueling the Future

Government mandates are driving global growth in demand for second-generation fuels. In Canada, the federal government has enacted a target blend of five per cent ethanol in gasoline by 2010. In Quebe...


Government mandates are driving global growth in demand for second-generation fuels. In Canada, the federal government has enacted a target blend of five per cent ethanol in gasoline by 2010. In Quebec, the 2006-2015 Energy Strategy sets a target blend of five per cent ethanol by 2012. In December 2007, then-US President Bush signed into law a Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) calling for at least 36 billion gallons of ethanol and other biofuels to be used nationwide by 2022, including a minimum of nine billion gallons in 2008, and 20.5 billion gallons by 2015.

Corn-based ethanol has paved the way to alternative fuels, but is now considered a bridge to next-generation ethanol. These second generation biofuels are made from non-food feedstocks such as residual biomass and municipal solid waste and address some of today’s main economic and environmental challenges. They help reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GhGs), while contributing to a greener economy. Further, producing fuels locally rather than importing foreign oil increases energy independence.

While several operational first-generation biofuel plants use food feedstock such as corn and sugar cane, very few second-generation ethanol plants have been built to commercial scale. However, the wide range of feedstocks from which second-generation fuels can be created means these fuels have a number of benefits over first-generation fuels.

Benefits of second-generation biofuels

Whereas first-generation biofuels, or “agrofuels,” are produced from sugar-rich crops such as corn, sugar cane and wheat, second-generation fuels are not produced from plants that are part of the food chain. Second-generation fuels can be created from a large base of biomass materials, including residues from urban living, forestry, and agricultural sources, municipal solid waste and energy crops such as switchgrass.

The wide range of feedstocks that can be used to create second-generation fuels leads to a number of benefits.

First, second-generation biofuels contribute to reducing GhGs by replacing gasoline produced from petroleum. National Resources Canada’s GH Genius model shows that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GhGs) by 40 to 60 per cent compared to gasoline. The federal government’s commitment to requiring gasoline to contain an average of five per cent ethanol by 2010 will bring GhG reductions equivalent to removing one million cars from Canada’s highways each year. These biofuels can further contribute to reducing GhGs by using waste materials and residues that would otherwise decompose into methane (a potent GhG) when landfilled.

Second, by diversifying our energy sources, second-generation biofuels lessen our dependence on petroleum as our main source of energy. Finally, second-generation biofuels can reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the use of landfill for many waste materials by converting them into fuel for automobiles.

Enerkem’s technology platform

Enerkem, a waste-to-fuel and green chemical company based in Montreal, has pioneered a clean technology platform designed to use a wide variety of feedstocks (from sorted municipal solid waste to agricultural and forest residues). The technology is not only feedstock flexible, but also employs a multi-product platform that can produce many valuable transportation fuels and green chemicals. The company has tested more than 20 types of feedstock at its pilot plant, which has been in operation in Sherbrooke since 2003, and has produced syngas, methanol and ethanol. It is operating its first commercial plant in Westbury.

Enerkem’s gas conditioning process allows it to produce a tailored syngas that can be converted into alcohols using established and readily available industrial catalysts at the proper temperatures and pressures. Enerkem can produce methanol and ethanol, other advanced fuels, such as synthetic diesel, dimethyl ether, and synthetic gasoline, as well as other green chemicals. Enerkem’s clean technology converts one tonne of raw material (dry base) into 360 litres of cellulosic ethanol — enough to drive a distance of approximately 2,500 kilometres (a drive from Winnipeg to Montreal). Additionally, Enerkem’s gasification technology allows it to produce renewable electricity. The end-product mix makes it possible for Enerkem to develop a wide range of projects based on market conditions from biorefineries to renewable electricity plants.

In addition to producing renewable transportation biofuels and reducing landfilling, the process has a posi tive energy balance, since gasification requires less energy than it produces. It also requires minimal use of water, and depending on the feedstock, it can be a net producer of potable water. In comparison, the production of corn ethanol uses 300 percent more water than Enerkem’s process. Finally, according to an independent lifecycle analysis, the process reduces the production of CO2 by three tonnes for each dry tonne of municipal solid waste processed.

Municipal negative-cost model

Enerkem’s recently announced plants in Edmonton and Mississippi demonstrate the range of projects facilitated by the diverse feedstocks its technology uses. Enerkem’s technology platform is designed to use non-homogeneous waste as feedstock, thus enabling the company to use negative-cost feedstock such as municipal solid waste and things like used electricity poles. Municipalities pay Enerkem a tip fee to remove their waste and free up scarce landfill space, relieving municipalities of some costs related to waste disposal.

“This strategy could give the company an edge in case ethanol prices drop further,” says Jim McMillan, a manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s National Bioenergy Center. “Instead of paying money to put it in a hazardous-waste landfill, to make fuel out of it is a great thing. The fact that their model is based on negative-cost feedstocks is very attractive.”

In June 2008, Enerkem signed a 25-year agreement with the City of Edmonton to build and operate a plant that will produce and sell next generation biofuels, including methanol and cellulosic ethanol, from sorted municipal solid waste. This is the world’s first agreement between a large urban centre and a biofuel producer to turn municipal waste into ethanol. As part of the agreement, the city Edmonton will supply a minimum of 100,000 tonnes of sorted municipal solid waste per year. The sorted municipal solid waste to be used is the ultimate residue after recycling and composting. These residues would otherwise be landfilled.

Greenfield Ethanol and Enerkem will be jointly responsible for financing the project and for constructing, owning, and operating the plant which will be located at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre in Edmonton, Alberta. The plant will initially produce 36 million litres of biofuels per year. (See companion article in the Summer 2009 edition of HazMat Management magazine, page 44.)

In March 2009, Enerkem announced plans to build and operate a $250 million second-generation biofuels production facility located in Pontotoc, Mississippi — its first in the United States. The facility will produce 20 million gallons of ethanol per year from 370,000 green tonnes of feedstock (200,000 tonnes of urban biomass and 170,000 tonnes of forest/agricultural biomass).

Enerkem’s approach may provide a solution to some of the challenges that the production and commercialization of cellulosic ethanol has faced, including high manufacturing costs and the volume of feedstock required. The company has also received financial support from governments and agencies including Natural Resources Canada, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Natural Resources Quebec and the Alberta Energy Research Institute. And with the ability to use municipal waste and telephone poles as feedstock, Chornet believes Enerkem won’t have any difficulties maintaining a constant supply of feedstock.

“The waste

streams we’re looking into, fortunately for us, have been up in the last 10 years. That’s a more subtle answer to the question: ‘Are you going to miss waste someday?'”

Marie-Helene Labrie is Vice President, Government Affairs and Communications, for Enerkem in Montreal, Quebec. Contact Marie-Helene at mlabrie@enerkem.com

———

“This is the world’s first agreement between a large urban centre and a biofuel producer to turn municipal waste into ethanol.”


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