Enerkem Biofuels

Enerkem Biofuels plants fuel community development

Imagine turning garbage from a landfill into fuel for a car. Enerkem, a Montreal-based biofuels company, specializes in precisely that extraordinary transformation. The company has developed a process that takes garbage and converts it into ethanol, a fuel that can replace petroleum. The company’s unique, proprietary process effectively and sustainably creates biofuels—a crucial part of improving the environment. The brainchild of renowned chemical engineer Dr. Esteban Chornet and his business-oriented son Vincent, the technological concept has grown into full fledged business. What began as a remarkable vision of two to revolutionize waste management has grown into a leading member of the first commercial production plants for biofuels. This month, The Canadian Business Journal investigates this Canadian biotechnology pioneer.

There are numerous methods and platforms used in hopes of producing green, yet economically viable, alternative fuel sources. Enerkem utilizes a thermochemical technology platform that transforms sorted municipal solid wastes and residues into advanced biofuels and chemicals. There is a definite appeal to a process that utilizes the very wastes which populations are having difficulty disposing of or managing. Furthermore, the company has created a model where plant design is standardized and can be established anywhere in the world there is a landfill or residual forest.

Fuel for a competitive landscape

Are there other companies doing the same thing? Marie-Helene Labrie, Vice President of Communication and Government affairs, helped explain to CBJ why Enerkem has a definite advantage in the biofuels market. First and foremost, Enerkem has been developing its technology for many years and is one of the more advanced companies in this regard. Enerkem is ready to commercialize its technology while others are still in the pilot phase and testing the technology. Says Labrie, “We really have a first-mover advantage because we have been testing the technology since 2003.”

Another clear advantage that Enerkem maintains is the flexibility of the technology to use a wide variety of feed stocks, which are the materials that are converted into ethanol. This can consist of residual biomass from forests and—what is likely the cheapest material around—municipal waste. Explains Labrie, “We are very unique in that we are able to use feed stock that is mixed, or heterogeneous, such as municipal waste. Very few players that can covert from material that is mixed. You can have plastics, dirty paper, textiles; it is really a mixed feedstock that is much more challenging than homogeneous materials.” The technology also gives Enerkem leeway on the output side. The process has the ability to produce intermediate green chemical products such as methanol and acetate during the treatment process. While Enerkem is focusing on ethanol production currently due to the high demand in the market, this offers exciting potential for future revenue. 

The Enerkem model is an intriguing one; its community-based biorefineries offer municipalities more than just an opportunity to protect and enhance the environment. Rather than a centralized model, Enerkem is focused on placing their biorefineries on landfill sites and operating each on site. Says Labrie, “We offer communities a sustainable solution to traditional waste management while helping them meet the demand for cleaner fuels, green products, and the need to create new jobs and stimulate regional economies.” This symbiotic relationship has the potential to be of true value to communities.

Commercial facilities

The company has two current commercial facilities in operation, one in Mississippi in the U.S. and the other in Edmonton, Alberta. In Edmonton, in a global first, Enerkem signed a 25-year agreement with the City of Edmonton to build and operate a plant that will produce and sell biofuels from non-recyclable and non-compostable municipal solid waste. Labrie elaborates, “We will be helping the city increase its landfill waste diversion rate from 60 to 90 per cent.” Construction began last August, and operations will begin progressively towards the end of 2011. By completion, the facility will be producing 36 million litres of ethanol per year—which is enough biofuel to fuel over 400,000 cars per year running on a 5 per cent ethanol gasoline blend (5 per cent ethanol, 95 per cent gasoline). In Mississippi, Enerkem is proudly part of the first U.S. municipal solid waste to ethanol facility, and were chosen from a select group of candidates for such a large scale project. The project has received a 50 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Growth plans and the future of biofuels

So where does Enerkem see the biofuels industry in the future? Demand for biofuels can only rise long-term as governments are continually receiving new mandates in regards to renewable resource regulations. The U.S. market in particular is a very large one; according to Labrie “it currently represents 10 million gallons and will represent 36 million gallons by 2022.” Enerkem is currently focused on expanding more into this market and are developing new projects there. In the future, it will look into international expansion. “We are looking at opportunities in China and India which are also countries that have big challenges related to waste management and also on the energy side, so we think we can really add value.” Enerkem feels that its localized model presents an exciting opportunity for communities as biofuels production can occur anywhere in the world, thus promoting a green economy using local resources, and reducing the regional carbon footprint.

Enerkem has a unique process that can efficiently provide energy to the world in an environmentally sound manner. The bold vision of two individuals has turned into a revolutionary force to be reckoned with; Enerkem’s biorefineries have limitless global potential. As a frontrunner in an industry that has been slow in picking up speed, Enerkem stands out as an economically viable solution for the production of biofuels.