If you’ve ever driven the Anthony Henday’s eastern portion, or headed out to Sherwood Park on Baseline Road or the Yellowhead, you’ve seen them. Industrial smokestacks, reaching out above storage tanks and mazes of steel frames pieced together like giant K’Nex sets, any of which would have made a suitable setting for the final scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. On clear nights, you can even see the flickering flames from within the city limits.
But, on the north end of Refinery Way, where the North Saskatchewan makes its final bend out of the city, there’s a processing plant without a single smokestack. Like its neighbours, it produces fuel, but it spews no pollution. There is plenty of waste on site but, exactly unlike its neighbours, the waste goes in, not up in the air.
The Enerkem Alberta Biofuels Facility is the first full-scale waste-to-biofuels and chemicals facility in North America. It produces renewable methanol and ethanol from non-recyclable and non-compostable solid waste (supplied by the people and businesses of Edmonton), which is then used for transportation fuel and to create everyday products. Executive Vice President, Engineering, Innovation and Operations Michel Chornet’s father and brother founded Enerkem in 2000 (the Edmonton plant was operational in 2016). But even before he joined the family business in 2007, Chornet curtailed energy waste with his own company, Fractal Systems Inc., which reduced the viscosity of heavy oils and bitumen. “We’ve always been about: How can we valourize residual carbon?” he explains. “About 60 per cent of waste is carbon that cannot be recycled or composted, and we’re just putting it in landfills. So we ask: How can we extract value from this? How can we recycle carbon?”
The “how” is innovative, and complicated, but Chornet explains it by describing four islands of process and production. On “material island,” non-recyclable waste is sorted to create refuse-derived fuel (RDF), which contains carbon — the stuff Enerkem wants. Typically, RDF goes into a landfill. Now, it can go to Enerkem’s “gasification island,” where the solid RDF is converted into a synthetic gas made up of molecules such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This syngas is “scrubbed” on the third island, using proprietary technology to remove contaminants. The resulting “ultra-pure syngas” becomes usable, and is catalytically converted on Enerkem’s fourth island into molecules that create transportation fuel and chemicals to make
new products (plastics, soaps, drugs, pens). Once the RDF is received, the entire process takes a few minutes and not a single chemical or smoke puff leaves the facility.
“I like to say that nature has taken millions of years to build materials out of molecules. And, when we enter waste material into our gasifier, we break it down at the molecular level, as it was millions of years ago. We clean it, and we rebuild the chemistry,” Chornet says.
Chornet emphasizes that Enerkem adds to existing recycling efforts and technologies, it doesn’t replace them. And, while the ethanol Enerkem produces doesn’t require large landmasses, the way corn ethanol does, it isn’t trying to hamper any industry. “We consider ourselves synergistic with recycling efforts and composting efforts,” he says. “What we want is material that cannot be used or enhanced through more conventional means. It’s residual material that we’re after.”
Though imperfect, Edmonton has always been a leader in waste management, even going back to the ’90s when it was one of the first to adopt the blue bin curbside recycling program. Last September, city council approved Edmonton’s 25 Year Waste Strategy, parts of which — like the wind-down of commercial collection services — were already initiated last year. Others, like the elimination of certain single-use plastics and restrictions on disposable products, will be brought to council late this fall, or at the start of 2021, along with recommendations on changes to bylaws. The city set a 90 per cent diversion from landfill target, and is using it as a means to inform its analysis of program options for multi-unit, industrial, commercial and institutional spaces.
“At its core, the strategy has a zero-waste framework,” says Mike Labrecque, branch manager of waste services with the City of Edmonton. “And it focuses on the top end of the waste hierarchy. We’re looking at changes not only for our single-unit residences, but also for our multi-unit (apartments and condos) and industrial, commercial and institutional sectors to improve diversion and avoid materials going to landfill.”
Enerkem’s emergence in Edmonton, around the same time the city is looking to revamp its handling of large-scale waste, might seem like good timing. But it’s more of a testament to the city’s solid track record. “Edmonton has always been a leader in waste management throughout North America and the world,” Chornet says. “And, for us, especially for our first plant, it was very important to have a partner who is committed to their waste diversion goals. There are challenges on both sides. But a partner that was committed to [the same ideals] was important for us, and this is what we have with the city of Edmonton.”
That commitment was made official when the city signed a 25-year agreement with Enerkem as well, promising to provide 100,000 tonnes of RDF over time, which helps eliminate the need for another landfill and steps the city in another innovative direction towards a circular economy.
“My father was a visionary,” Chornet says. “When I was a kid, he had these catchphrases like ‘circular economy.’ It’s the notion of not creating waste, recycling your waste and having a closed-loop system. When you look at the recycling industry, you have mechanical recycling, which is what we do at home and what the city of Edmonton does, but there’s a limit on how much mechanical recycling you can do. What you cannot recycle mechanically, you have to recycle chemically. And this is what we do.”