Podcast: Turning Non-Recyclable Waste Into Low-Carbon Intensive Biofuel

What if we could take the waste that no one wants, the kind that ends up in landfills, and turn it into sustainable fuel?
Apr 20, 2022 10:45 AM ET
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Thanks to developments in gasification technology, this kind of transformation is now possible on a commercial scale. “Ten or 20 years into the future, I really see a world where carbon will be in a closed loop,” says Andrea Redford, Chief Business Development Officer at Enerkem.

Enerkem, a leading Canadian cleantech company, is building a new biorefinery in the Greater Montreal area that will turn non-recyclable waste from landfills into valuable, low-carbon intensive biofuel.

In this episode of Engineering Matters, we visit the Varennes Carbon Recycling Plant near Montreal, Canada, and discover why engineers are so excited about working on this pioneering new technique for recycling waste carbon. Ultimately, this technique could help decarbonize transportation while lowering Canada’s carbon footprint.

In this podcast, Ali Ashraf, Engineering Project Manager at WSP, talks about the challenges of building such a complex facility. “Nothing like it exists in the world. We take all these carbon-rich materials and convert them into something that's economically valuable. This ultimately represents a fantastic proposition for environmental conservation and overall sustainability, as well as for a cleaner and greener future,” says Ali.

To learn more about the Enerkem project, please consult our project page From Waste to Energy.

Guests in this episode:

  • Andrea Redford, Chief Business Development Officer, Enerkem
  • Ali Ashraf, Engineering Project Manager, WSP
  • Richard Fecteau, Senior Vice-President, Energy Resources, WSP
  • Pierre-Olivier Pineau, Professor of Energy Market Policy, HEC Montreal, University of Montreal

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Transcript.

Host: Alex Conacher and Bernadette Ballantyne
Guests listed above.

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Intro music – dramatic style quite loud and attention grabbing and then quietens to play behind Andrea subtly

Andrea
We're really at the beginning of seeing the potential of what can be done with the waste with the trash. And really create the circular economy that we've been talking about for many years now. So, I think what we're starting to do is find ways that we can take this carbon, which is typically just been discarded, and pull it back into usable products, and do that in the most energy efficient way possible.

Ten years, 20 years into the future, I really see a world where the carbon will be in a loop. And we will be taking waste carbon into products again, it doesn't necessarily have to be a coffee cup becomes a coffee cup, but what it becomes is about is about the molecules from the feedstock that we have available in a mixed pool of hydrocarbons. And taking that into…. in the most efficient way via the processes and the plants that we build, back into usable products and having that truly become an integrated and sustainable chain.

Music lifts again

Welcome to Engineering Matters. I am Bernadette Ballantyne

And I am Alex Conacher and for this episode we have partnered with WSP to investigate a truly revolutionary technology that is turning waste…

….non-recyclable waste that is being dumped in landfills all over the world….

Alex
Into sustainable biofuels, chemicals and products that could support a wide range of industries in lowering their carbon emissions.

Andrea
We've developed and commercialised a unique gasification technology, which produces advanced biofuels and circular chemicals from non-recyclable waste.

Bernadette
Andrea Redford is the chief business development officer for Canadian advanced biofuel manufacturing technology company Enerkem.

Andrea
I lead the strategy and the implementation of the deployment of Enerkem’s proprietary technology on a global basis. So essentially, what that means is, we work out the best sets of conditions and deployment scenarios for Enerkem’s decarbonisation technology.

Bernadette
Decarbonisation technology which in this case uses thermo chemical gasification to process waste and turn it into useful gases.

Alex
Materials are basically fed into a high temperature and pressure vessel where oxygen and steam are applied causing a series of chemical reactions that convert the waste into a gaseous form of the most basic molecules

Bernadette
These new gases are carbon monoxide and hydrogen

Alex
Better known as syngas.

Andrea
So essentially what we do is we want to turn that syngas into products which are drop in and able to directly replace products which are currently used in the industry in fuels and chemicals. We take the syngas, which is the CO and the hydrogen, and then we convert that into molecules such as methanol, which is obviously a simple alcohol. It's used in both fuels and chemicals applications, we can also convert into ethanol, which is the next step in terms of alcohol. Or we can take that same gas through other pathways to make other chemicals, or via technology, such as Fischer Tropsch technology, to make synthetic aviation fuel.

Bernadette
And one of the best things about it is that it is using waste that would otherwise be shoved into landfill.

Andrea
That distinction of non-recyclable is really important. Because this is the waste that would otherwise be destined for landfill or in some cases in incineration.

Alex
Right now Enerkem’s gasification technology is being deployed on its largest project to date – the Varennes Carbon Recycling plant in Quebec, Canada.

Bernadette
Where it will take 200,000 tonnes per year of non-recyclable and forestry waste.

Alex
And turn it into around 125 million litres per year of biofuels, equivalent to 50 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Bernadette
Construction is about to begin and WSP is responsible for detailed engineering design and procurement so that this technology becomes a real piece of critical infrastructure.

Ali
The sheer magnitude and size of the project makes it extremely exciting for our teams and for myself. And at the end of the day, it's just a very cool project to work on.

Alex
Ali Ashraf is project manager for the engineering of the Varennes Carbon Recycling Plant.

Ali continues
Nothing like it exists in the world. And so we're able to take by-products that are normally either sent to landfill or incineration or essentially disposed of in non-clean manners. And we take all that those carbon rich materials and we convert them into something that's valuable to the economy and ultimately represents an a fantastic proposition for environmental conservatism, overall sustainability and bringing towards a cleaner, greener cleaner future.

Bernadette
It is exciting work for an engineer.

Ali
I think each of us is cognizant of the environmental pressures that we have, you know, given global climate change, and, and we all try to do our part, either at home or with our, with our friends. And, and I think the benefit here is that we're able to take our talents and expertise that we've grown through more conventional industries, and to really bring it to the forefront in order to really make a major and lasting contribution to this industry.

Alex
Exciting, groundbreaking… but also challenging and there are two main obstacles that the team really faced when taking on this project. Gasification is not new but the scale of this brings its own challenges from both a physical infrastructure perspective and ensuring that there is a market for the products.

Ali
So when Enerkem first started, they started with a lab concept about 20 years ago, and they were able to come up with I guess, a pilot plant in Westbury. The first commercialization occurred in Edmonton about five to six years ago.

Andrea
And there we take the MSW

Bernadette
Municipal Solid Waste

which would be the landfill portion from their sorting facility that the city of Edmonton runs. So this is the heterogeneous mix reject from the MRF

Alex
MRF - Material Recovering Facility

Andrea Continues
…..in Edmonton, and we process this in our gasifier in the facility there and that gasifier is the commercial size gasifier that we are currently implementing across all of our commercial projects. But to get to that point, was a long road of measured scale up steps all the way through our R&D facilities, our innovation centre pilot scale facilities, which are located in Westbury in in Quebec, to that that full size gasifier that we operate. So this is really just something which truly has been the work of decades to get us to this point.

Alex
The Varennes project might have the same commercial size gasifier but the scale of the complex is much larger, which was a key challenge for Ali and the team.

Ali
The largest challenge we have right now is just the issue of scale. And the other major challenge we have is tied to technology…..

Bernadette
Because unlike previous gasifiers Enerkem have made major progress in terms of the ability of their technology to work with a very mixed waste feedstock to create a consistent end product. And that is very difficult, so difficult that no one else has done this yet….

Ali
Essentially, we have to have a plant that's able to take vast and large amounts of very variable feedstock and convert it into very fixed and very high quality products that are sold back into the market. And so the challenge with that is to have a plant that is able to be variable and can adjust and adapt to the various inputs and produce a very fixed output at a scale that makes it commercially viable, while also being flexible enough to adapt to various, you know, products that were coming in and treating and handling.

Alex
The gasifier complex will look more like a petrochemical refinery that a waste processing site.

Bernadette
But it is the process that drives the design and both Andrea and Ali describe several key steps….

Andrea
There's a feeding system, the gasification, the syngas production, and then the methanol, the methanol Island, as we call it….

Alex
And it all begins with the waste

Ali
So the first step is, is in the feedstock preparation and receiving and what that involves is essentially, waste handling material handling and mining like equipment where we receive material, we sort it to shred it, we dry it. And we have essentially a feeding system that goes then into the gasification portion of the plant, which is the proprietary technology, where we essentially convert these carbon rich residues or waste products into synthetic gas.

Bernadette
There are different types of gasifiers and Enerkem uses what is known as fluidised bed reactors where the gasification medium is supplied through the base of the reactor and can be operated at lower temperatures than some of the other technologies.

Andrea
We do run a relatively low severity process compared to some other gasification technologies which are out there. This is an aspect of our process which delivers increased efficiency compared to some of the alternatives.

Bernadette
This efficiently produced syngas then has to be cleaned.

Ali
And we take that into, into the next part of the plant, which is the cleaning and conditioning portion, which involves scrubbing towers, water treatment, and a separation of residues. What's interesting is that both the gasification cleaning condition are sort of first of their kind. They involve equipment that doesn't exist anywhere else. So you can imagine that in designing these equipments, and with our engineers, designers and partners, we approached several vendors with various, you know, requirements and design criteria that they've simply never seen before.

Bernadette
This is mainly related to the challenge mentioned already – scale

Ali
Some of the process requirements and mechanical requirements, and loads that we're designing to are really at the limit of what conventional products technologies and manufacturers can provide.

Bernadette
And for problem solving engineers like Ali and the other 120 professionals on his team, scaling up design to support the energy transition is an exciting problem to have

Ali
The next step of the plant then is to take that syngas that is produced and go through a process of synthesis and product purification to ultimately convert that syngas which is composed of primarily hydrogen, carbon monoxide and other carbon gases and clean it to the point where we're able to essentially produce methanol, ethanol and other by-products for the biofuels in chemical industry.

Andrea
The methanol product will be destined for fuels applications There's obviously quite high demand for low carbon methanol, you've probably seen, there's a lot of a lot of buzz right now around methanol for marine fuel. And a lot of the demand for this. So that's definitely a potential for the consortium to place the product, but a high degree of interest, but right now, the highest value is in the fuel space product.

Alex
The consortium that raised the Canadian $875M project investment consists of Shell, Suncor and Proman with each partner bringing their expertise in traditional energy sectors and petrochemicals to the bio-fuels space.

Bernadette
But before processing can begin Ali and his team have to design and deliver the facility, which will sit on a footprint of around 500,000 square feet or 46,000 square metres and also includes a one of the world’s largest electrolysers for making green hydrogen using the plentiful supply of hydropower that Canada has an abundance of.

Alex
Most of the buildings are industrial process plant with the associated pipework as well as the tall thin distillation columns

Ali
The interesting part about the visible visual profile of this plant is that it's, it's very much a little bit like a Lego structure. The unique design challenge we have here is that we were designing everything in modular structures. So everything may look a little like a little Lego brick that stacked on one on one of each, in order to have an ultra-modular design that allows us to have various flexibility and expansion as well as overall construction opportunities.

Alex
Sitting on the banks of the St Lawrence River

Bernadette
…Varennes is around 30 minutes south east of Montreal…

Alex
…which will enable components and construction materials to be floated along to site, reducing road traffic.

But as any experienced civil engineer will tell you, the success of a project starts with understanding the ground that it is being constructed in.

Ali
When Enerkem approached us just before the project started, they came to us with a with an early geotechnical investigation study, and after looking at it closely with them, we recommended additional geotechnical investigations be performed. Given that we were entering a detail engineering phase that would require additional information and test.

Alex
And the findings showed that the ground conditions were much worse than anyone had predicted….

Ali
What we have here is a very silty clay, it's a bit like Swiss cheese I suppose…

Alex
Silty clay has larger particles and larger spaces between them than a more uniform clay, which massively affects the ground’s performance and how it reacts to the structures that are placed in it. This silty clay is basically not as strong for day to day pressures or in the event of something much less common like an earthquake….

Ali
Less overall bearing capacity and more subject to amplification following seismic conditions and so you can imagine a world where if you've got a very clay like structure or subsurface condition with a lot of piles following an earthquake or seismic event, there's the risk of essentially a liquefaction of that of that soil. So designing piles and saying foundation systems that can resist these potential conditions gets extra challenging in terms of the size and spacing of piles their depth and how we optimise the structures above ground to ultimately ensure that the design is safe.

Alex
And that is the number one priority, ahead of cost or anything else

Ali
These systems cannot fail there's no tolerance or room for failure for structures that that experienced various forms of differential settlement or sinking of sorts. And so it's important that ultimately the design be conservative to ensure that they're safe and operable, but also aggressive enough that that the capital cost of development and construction is carefully managed.

Bernadette
In this case the solution was to create a bespoke web of foundation types and depths depending on the loads, location and ground conditions. In many cases this meant switching from a simple concrete pad to installing deep reinforced concrete piles.

Ali
We've got specific parts of the facility where we had more traditional conventional, you know, concrete foundations that go anywhere from two to three metres deep. And now we have piles that have to go century to refusal, which are anywhere about 30 metres deep.

Alex
Refusal means all the way down to the bedrock

Ali
And given that this is actually right by the water, the bedrock is actually quite low, and has a sloping profile across the site as well. So the portion closest to the water obviously has a lower than the one that's further inland. And so it creates sort of a design that evolves as we move from one side of the facility to the next.

Bernadette
What is more the team will keep on testing as they go so that if they find that the clay is more dense and less silty in certain locations they can reduce the depth of piles, saving money where they can.

Alex
Because the team want to make sure that the project is a success for many reasons. Not least that this is a local company, making a world leading technology.

Richard
This was very exciting, because it was part of the energy transition that we all heard up and it was real, it was happening. The capital was invested. And it was in our backyard.

Bernadette
This is Richard Fecteau

Richard
I'm a senior vice president for energy resources in industry for WSP in Canada

Alex
He says that when they were putting the proposal together to bid for the project there was a lot of excitement among local engineers who, like Ali, want to play a role in a transition towards greener energy systems.

Richard
If you are a professional engineer in Quebec, you all know, you know, about Enerkem because it came from the university lab, to a commercial scale. So it was very attractive for process engineers or project engineers to be part of that project.

Richard
The founder, the actual founder of Enerkem was a fellow a professor at the chemical engineering faculty at the Sherbrooke University.

Alex
A chemical engineer by the name of Dr Esteban Chornet and Sherbrooke University is in Quebec.

Andrea
There is a huge amount of, you know, encouragement and support and confidence put in Enerkem and our solution by both the Canadian government and the Quebec government. So this is a factor as well, as I mentioned, you know, previously, there is, there's a lot of perfect storm of conditions going on in Canada as well, from the LCI electricity…

Alex
(low carbon intensity electricity)

Andrea continues
Which factors into, you know, the hydrogen and the oxygen that we're producing, but also LCI electricity, for any process facility is going to be really important….. So Canada has a lot of things going for it.

Bernadette
Including its recently renewed focus on lowering emissions

Pierre-Olivier
The federal government is very aggressive in its climate change plan.

Alex
Pierre-Olivier Pineau is a professor in energy market policy at the Business School at the University of Montreal. He knows all about the perfect storm that Andrea referred to…..

Pierre-Olivier
And the current government, which is a Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau is basically trying to make up for the waste of time of the previous years, and we've been missing all our emission reduction targets for you know, for many years now.

Bernadette
Canada has benefitted from a wealth of energy supplies. It is the world’s fourth largest oil producer and fourth largest hydropower producer with 81GW of installed capacity accounting for around 60 percent of its electricity production.

Alex
Low energy costs and plentiful availability created a culture of consumption. But the climate in changing, in more ways than one…..

Pierre-Olivier
The biggest strength of the current plan at the Canadian level is the is the carbon tax that is currently implemented at $40 a tonne with the perspective of increasing to $170 Canadian dollars per tonne by 2050. And, and even if this level is not as high as what it should be to really be able to meet the carbon neutrality and zero net emission targets we have for 2050, it is a very strong step in the right direction.

Alex
One of the sectors that will be most affected by this is transport, and it faces other climate related policy changes too….

Pierre-Olivier
On different fronts on the carbon tax on the cleaner fuels, mandates that the government is implementing, and there is a mandate for clean fuel standards. That is that will start actually to be enforced next year….

Alex
The Clean Fuel Standard will require liquid fuel (gasoline and diesel) suppliers to gradually reduce the carbon intensity of the fuels they produce and sell for use in Canada over time, leading to a decrease of approximately 13% (below 2016 levels) in the carbon intensity of our liquid fuels used in Canada by 2030.

Pierre-Olivier
…. then there is a lot of initiatives to you know, bring cleaner fuels to consumers to reduce consumption by electrifying transportation to make polluters pay the carbon tax. And to my taste, there isn't enough yet in terms of, you know, purely reducing consumption in transportation by finding, you know, more, more durable the ways more sustainable ways of transporting stuff and people around.

Bernadette
Against this backdrop it is not surprising that Enerkem see the transport sector as being a key market for their biofuels. Pierre-Olivier agrees that they could play a significant role in decarbonising transport as part of a wider transition.

Pierre-Olivier
In transportation, there's a wide variety of options that could be pursued, you know, the one that we tend to forget the most is train for freight transportation, you know, it's 90% less energy intensive than heavy trucks and in Canada, and that's a different path than that what Europe has taken in Canada and North America, heavy trucks have been increasing by more than 150% in terms of numbers in terms of energy consumption and emissions, it is actually freight transportation is the fastest growing sector in terms of emissions in Canada.

Alex
And these trucks will need to decarbonise fast as carbon price increases year on year. Hydrogen and electrification of these vehicles are potential solutions, but require large shifts in the infrastructure designed to support them. Biofuels can be used more readily including blending them in to diesel to reduce its carbon intensity.

Pierre-Olivier
Biofuels are the most promising option for to decarbonize the transportation sector in the short run, because they can be directly used in the current stock of vehicles that we have in Canada, compared to other options such as electrification or hydrogen, that would take much more investments and longer and more structural changes in our transportation systems. biofuels can be used right now so that's why it's a priority to develop them to make sure we have a lower carbon option to still have the transportation and mobility needs that we need to satisfy with a fuel that we can use without damaging the climates.

Bernadette
This brings us on to the question of the definition of a biofuel because one of the economic advantages of the Varennes project is that it can create a consistently homogenous syngas from a variety of waste products. If it contains plastics for example what does that mean for the carbon intensity?

Andrea
Depending on the jurisdiction, and the regulatory framework that exists, the biogenic portions are typically most highly valued in the fuels markets. And then the circular portions are normally focused on the chemical space. And logically that means that you're taking the residual mixed plastics, so the residual plastics, and you're putting those back into the chemicals and plastics value chain. So the carbon then truly becomes circular and the biogenic portion and is more highly valued in the fuel space. So there are nuances around this.

Alex
One of the main challenges for investors in this space is the uncertainty over how fuel prices, both fossil fuels and biofuels will evolve.

Andrea
Really the main challenge in terms of the space that we're in deploying the technology, moving the projects forward is really around product pricing uncertainty, and being able to, you know, have enough data to be able to comfortably project, the value of the products going forward for a substantial period of time. If you would have asked me the same question two years ago, I probably would have come at it from a point of view of regulatory uncertainty, which is still a factor. But you know, I would say as you know, as every quarter goes by, this becomes less and less of a factor. Because there is, you know, much more commitment, longevity, very specific declarations, you know, by countries and governments, and also by companies that have very large portfolios and the fossil based fuels and chemical space, to decarbonize, to put a substantial value on CO2 savings, that this is really becoming much less of an issue.

Bernadette
Pierre-Olivier explains that pricing can be a challenge in Canada because of the variations between provinces which means a lack of consistency across the country.

Pierre-Olivier
Because the carbon prices that I that that is existing in Canada is not the same across provinces because we could not agree in the past on a single carbon price. So we do have in Quebec, one specific carbon price which is different from the Federal carbon price, and that carbon price does not apply equally to all sectors. So for cars and trucks that are being used, within Quebec, there is a price, which is currently around 35 Canadian dollars a tonne, which is lower than the federal price, but that Quebec price may evolve in a different way in the future. So that for developers, they don't know exactly what will be the actual carbon cost for fossil fuel users. And that creates some kinds of uncertainty from their end, because they don't know. They don't know the price of their competitor. So they don't know exactly how they can price their own product competitively in the future. And of course, if they were sure that in 2030 the price of carbon would be $170 in Quebec, then that would help them a lot, because they would know that their product would sell against fossil fuels, that would be extremely expensive, because of the high carbon price.

Alex
And this is a matter of policy

Pierre-Olivier
So politics are getting into the way of giving a stable economic environment for developers of such projects.

Bernadette
From a waste perspective Canada has had the same lack of incentive to change as the energy sector thanks to the availability of land.

Pierre-Olivier
There’s never been a huge momentum for incineration and gasification because, because basically, landfills were there. They were cheap. And as every human Canadians don't like to pay more and tend to tend to think that the environment is there to be you know, our landfill. So we just dump waste everywhere, like most humans, and because in Canada, we have lots of land, then we had greater opportunities to use these landfills and to fill them. But of course, we're reaching some point where people now realise that, you know, we cannot just grow these landfills, more and more, so we need to better manage waste. And to as much as we can develop a circular economy

Alex
Legislators are starting to change policy to support this

Pierre-Olivier
So in Quebec recently, the government, as you know, is, as you know, taken a deep, deep view at what's happening with waste management. And they announced that they would increase the, the tipping fees, which are the fees paid to, you know, bring waste to landfill

Bernadette
Because landfill is the place of last resort for waste that can’t be recycled or turned directly into something else. Waste that actually contains carbon that we can use if we have the right technology to capture it.

Pierre-Olivier
This is where Enerkem is developing a technology which is which is actually different from a really the high level high temperature gasification that is currently being done in different countries like Japan. The Enerkem technology is working at lower temperature. So it is it is it is a unique technology that is that doesn't bring that doesn't need such a high temperature to turn the feedstock into syngas and then into different types of biofuels.

Alex
And of course the feedstock itself can be flexible

Pierre-Olivier
So the viability of the feedstock that can be used to lower temperature and the different types of different types of outputs that it can provide, you know the flexibility to do basically being able to build different fuels liquid fuels for different uses. That's really the strength I think of the project.

End of transcript.