company Enerkem is partnering with the Canadian city of Edmonton to
build an $80 million plant that will consume 100,000 dry tonnes of
municipal solid waste annually to produce 36 million liters of
ethanol—and a further plant is in the works for
Enerkem facility under construction in Edmonton is being touted as the
world's first industrial-scale biofuels project to use municipal solid
waste as feedstock.
Futurists predicted that industry would one day use human garbage as a
raw material, and one Canadian city is proving them right. The Canadian
city of Edmonton's Cloverbar landfill will soon be home to an $80
million waste-to-biofuels plant.
The plant is owned and will be operated by a company called Enerkem
Alberta Biofuels, a subsidiary of Canadian-based clean technology
company, Enerkem. The Edmonton facility is being touted as the world's
first industrial-scale biofuels project to use municipal solid waste as
feedstock. A similar project is under development in Pontotoc,
The environmental dividend of this plant extends far beyond the
production of biofuels. Once operational, production at the biofuels
plant will raise the diversion rate of residential garbage for this
city of nearly 800,000 people from 60 to 90 percent. In other words,
only 10 percent of the waste arriving at the landfill in garbage bags
will actually be landfilled.
The feedstock that will be used by the biofuels plant will consist of
non-recyclable plastics and non-recyclable biomass, which represents a
major breakthrough in the disposal of these types of residential
garbage. Finally, by taking the waste-to-biofuels route versus
transporting and landfilling the residential waste, it's expected that
greenhouse gases from the handling and disposal of this waste will be
reduced by at least 60 percent.
The Cloverbar landfill site, called the Edmonton Waste Management
Centre, is a bustling industrial cluster with a variety of
well-organized sorting, recycling, and composting activities. Except
for the unmistakable and familiar odor of a traditional garbage dump,
it might resemble many other industry centers located throughout North
In addition to the future waste-to-biofuels plant, the Cloverbar site
also houses North America's largest composting facility, about the size
of 14 NHL-size hockey rinks.
But the crown jewel in the city's decades-long quest to minimize
landfilling of residential garbage is the Enerkem biofuels plant
currently under construction. It is expected to be in operation by
2012. In the space of 17 years, a total of $320 million will have been
spent on the site by the City of Edmonton, the Province of Alberta, and
various private partners, including Enerkem.
Established in 2000 and head-quartered in Montreal, Quebec, Enerkem is
a waste-to-biofuels and chemicals company. It has commercialized its
proprietary thermochemical technology initially conceived through
research at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, and developed and
piloted in-house at Enerkem. It converts municipal solid waste first
into a syngas, then to methanol, and then into a variety of marketable
chemicals and products.
David Lynch, Enerkem's general manager for research and development,
says the company has focused primarily on the production of ethanol,
which will be marketed as a fuel additive. The company has significant
financial backing; Waste Management Inc. and Valero
Energy Corporation are among its major investors Edmonton actually
chose Enerkem for its waste-to-biofuels technology nearly a decade ago.
"We felt that their technology was flexible enough to deal with
municipal solid waste," says Bud Latta, the City of Edmonton's director
of processing and disposal in its waste management services division.
Enerkem's technology was also primed for commercialization. Since 2003,
the company has operated a pilot plant in Sherbrooke capable of
processing 4.8 tonnes of waste material per day. It has tested over 25
different types of potential feedstocks at this facility as part of its
waste-to-biofuels research and development. It is also operating a
commercial demonstration plant in Westbury, Quebec, able to produce
five million liters of ethanol per year from treated wood.
taking the waste-to-biofuels route versus transporting and landfilling
waste, it's expected that the city of Edmonton will be able to reduce
greenhouse gases by at least 60 percent from the handling and disposal
of this waste.
Lynch says the company was ready to build a commercial plant and is now
doing so in Edmonton. There were a number of locations in North America
under consideration. Enerkem had to be selective about where it made
its initial commercial investments, given the considerable interest
that its technology has attracted. There are approximately 300 landfill
locations in the United States that currently process sufficient
volumes of municipal solid waste per year to support full commercial
scale Enerkem modules.
Ultimately, the $29 million that the province of Alberta (through
Alberta Innovates Energy and Environmental Services (AIEES) and Alberta
Energy) committed toward the waste-to-biofuels plant helped to make the
project economically viable.
Enerkem's facility in Edmonton represents the template that the company
will use to build its modular facilities elsewhere. It is also
developing a similar facility in Pontotoc, Mississippi.
As part of its agreement with Enerkem, the City of Edmonton has
developed the capability at the waste management facility to produce
the feedstock needed by the waste-to-biofuels plant. It consists of
non-recyclable, non-compostable, and non-marketable material called
‘fluff' that will be transported to the Enerkem facility for
processing. Enerkem plans a two-phase development to produce and market
first methanol and then cellulosic ethanol. Once the plant is fully
developed, it will consume about 100,000 dry tonnes of municipal solid
waste annually to produce 36 million liters of ethanol. It has a
25-year feedstock supply agreement with the City of Edmonton.
Edmonton actually initiated the concept of installing a
waste-to-biofuels plant at the landfill about 10 years ago because the
Cloverbar site was rapidly reaching its maximum holding capacity, and
the city was not able to develop a new landfill site. The best prospect
was a landfill site about an hour outside the city. A study compared
the cost of transporting the residential garbage to the new landfill or
preparing the waste fluff Enerkem needed at its current site. The costs
"It was a wash in economics for us," says Jim Schubert, general
supervisor in the conversion technologies branch of the City of
Edmonton's waste management services department. He adds that the
Edmonton location is unique in North America because all of the
facilities needed to supply the waste-to-biofuels plant are located on
one site. "It truly is an integrated site."
Biofuels production starts with the city-owned and operated Integrated
Processing and Transfer Facility (IPTF). This is where the bagged
residential garbage arrives and is channeled into a variety of
processing streams—either recycling, composting, or
production of fluff for biofuels. Once the non-recyclable and
non-compostable material is separated, it is first shredded. Then it is
screened and classified, meaning that material such as glass, stones,
and ferrous and non-ferrous metals are removed. The remaining material
is shredded again so that all the feedstock is reduced to less than two
inches in diameter. According to Schubert, it is the city's
responsibility to provide Enerkem with a homogenous material that meets
their requirement for size, heat value, and moisture content. The waste
fluff will be plastic, non-recyclable paper, textiles, and wood waste.
the plant is fully developed, it will consume about 100,000 dry tonnes
of municipal solid waste annually to produce 36 million liters of
ethanol. It has a 25-year feedstock supply agreement with the City of
The Enerkem process to convert municipal solid waste into ethanol can
generally be described in two steps—thermal gasification and
catalytic reformation. Lynch says the company has taken a modular
approach to the design of its process, using third parties to
prefabricate and replicate individual modules. By taking this approach,
the company can implement its technology more easily at various
The feedstock is fed into a bubbling fluidized bed gasifier, which
operates at ‘low severity' or temperatures below 750 degrees
Celsius and five atmospheres pressure. This process accomplishes
conversion of carbon-rich residues into synthetic gas consisting
primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Enerkem then uses its gas
cleaning and conditioning process for separation and production of a
syngas as clean as natural gas. It is at this point that the company
engages the catalytic reformation process to produce commercial grade
methanol, with the intention of installing other commercially available
catalysts to take the methanol a step further to produce ethanol and
other chemicals used in the production of a variety of everyday
Lynch says being dependent on Edmonton's ability to sort and
pre-process the municipal solid waste to create the required feedstock
won't limit the proliferation of the company's technology. He says
Enerkem could have the capability to set up its own processing facility
as well as raw material pre-processing functions at future locations.
The inert residue produced by the
waste-to-biofuels plant is part of
the 10 percent that will still require
landfilling, but Enerkem is
already negotiating with other companies who may find a use for the
material, which would bring the total residential municipal solid waste
diversion rate close to 100 percent.
In addition to finding a more environmentally palatable solution to
manage this municipal solid waste, another bonus with the City and
Province's agreement with Enerkem is the construction of the Advanced
Energy Research Facility (AERF) also located at the Cloverbar site.
This is a mini-version of Enerkem's technology that AIEES, the City,
and Enerkem will use for research purposes. AIEES is the technology arm
of the Alberta government in energy and the environment. Inclusion of
the research facility in the agreement was a
major reason why the Alberta government agreed to support the
waste-to-biofuels project. Schubert says it will allow the City and the
Province to experiment with other waste feedstocks and expand the
province's knowledge related to the production of biofuels and