Canadian technology company Elementa Group uses an innovative steam reformation process to turn municipal waste into clean power for communities.
It was the late 90s when environmental management executive Jay Zwierschke began researching a new way of recycling waste in Ontario. He and his team spent several years looking at the waste business and trying to develop a model that would maximise its energy potential. They avoided using incineration because they considered it bad for the environment. Instead, they looked at clean energy technologies in Europe and began putting together a conceptual idea around a new, combustion-free process.
By 2003, Zwierschke and his team knew they had a viable business on their hands. They founded the company as Ontario Corporation but it later became Elementa Group to reflect their proprietary technology, the Elementa Process. It is based on a chemistry known as steam reformation, says Zwierschke, which can be applied to various types of waste and other carbon-based materials, such as select biomass. This concept was further developed over a number of years by the Elementa Group R&D team led by Ernie Dueck, Chief Technology Officer and an aeronautical engineer with a keen interest in chemistry, which eventually led to the Elementa patent and related intellectual property developments.
“We see waste as a product of carbonaceous materials comprising carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as contaminants that are scrubbed and filtered from the syngas using Elementa Group’s proprietary gas cleaning process,” says Zwierschke. “We shred the waste and put it into a rotary kiln that is indirectly heated to more than 850C and deprived of oxygen, making combustion impossible. Steam in the kiln reacts with the carbon in the waste and causes it to release its stored-up energy as a synthetic gas with high hydrogen content. Since there is no combustion or oxidation, removal of contaminants is far simpler, lower cost and more effective than in incineration systems, leading to an ultra-clean, high-quality synthetic gas. Very different from incineration concepts.
“Hydrogen makes up half of the syngas and the rest breaks down into carbon monoxide, methane, some carbon dioxide and a few other light hydrocarbons to produce a very clean, very high value synthetic gas with wide-ranging potential.”
About 20 per cent of the syngas goes back into heating and powering the system, leaving 80 per cent to be used for producing electricity, hydrogen or other green fuels and chemicals. “We need some energy from an external source to kick-start the process, but as soon as it’s going we can run off our own synthetic gas and maximise the heat recovery from the process,” Zwierschke explains. “It’s a closed-loop system: it can run off its own energy while producing an exceptional amount of net clean energy.”
By virtue of its chemistry and high thermal efficiency, he adds, the Elementa Process is relatively simple and cost-effective compared with other syngas-to-energy processes. “All of our equipment is low-cost and proven off-the-shelf; we’re not developing new, complex pieces of equipment. We have looked at the capital and operating costs, so we know that when this becomes available commercially it will be cost effective and adaptable for most markets around the world.”
Up to this point, Elementa Group has focused solely on processing municipal waste. However, Zwierschke says the Elementa Process could also be used on biomass and possibly other fuels. “We’re doing a lot of development work right now on fuels, such as ethanol and synthetic diesel, where this effort is led by Elementa Group’s Director of R&D, Dr Zoltan Kish – and looking at those alternate products with a number of partners to try and find the best approach,” he adds.
This is just one facet of Elementa Group’s extensive programme of research and development, for which it is working with a number of universities and R&D groups. It has worked with the Universities of Toronto and of Western Ontario, and is looking to work with other universities and R&D establishments in the future in “an open innovation environment”.
Some R&D will look at what further benefits can be derived from the process. “We have the opportunity to make fertilisers through one element of our gas cleaning process, and there are a lot of applications available for the clean water that gets condensed out,” Zwierschke remarks. Besides the syngas, fertiliser and water, another by-product of the Elementa Process is ‘aggregate’, which encompasses all material in the waste that doesn’t react in the steam reformation process. This includes ferrous and non-ferrous metals, which are removed prior to steam reformation so that they can be recycled in the standard way, as well as clays and other minerals that can be used in the construction industry.
The first major demonstration of Elementa Group’s technology is to be built in Sault Ste Marie, a mid-size city of 75,000 people in Ontario. Zwierschke praises the city’s council for being “very forward thinking,” having embraced clean energy technologies more than a decade ago. “They have one of the largest wind farms in Canada; 60MW of solar power within the city; and they’re developing bioenergy technologies here too, so we were delighted to be invited to join their clean energy initiative,” he comments.
Building upon Elementa Group’s very first project in 2006 – a 3-tonne-per-day demonstration centre – this new, full-scale commercial plant comes with a long-term contract to take in 50,000 tonnes of Sault Ste Marie’s waste and from it produce 10MW of electricity.
“It will show the rest of the world what we can do,” comments Zwierschke. “With this technology, we have the opportunity to substantially reduce greenhouse gases while providing solutions to landfill and clean alternatives to current high-emissions energy generation. We think there’s almost no limit to where that can go globally.”
Elementa Group’s horizons have widened significantly since its inception. Zwierschke recalls how initially his team set out to find a clean, commercially viable technology to use in operating a couple of plants in Ontario. Their mission began to change when they discovered that such a technology did not yet exist. “We decided to switch our focus to technology development, and as we researched further it became apparent that we were finding a solution to a global issue,” he explains. “I’m glad we made the decision to become a technology-focused company, because now we have an amazing technology that we can offer to the world.”
With its first major project underway in Ontario, Elementa Group is deciding where to take its technology next. It is doing some development work with groups in New York and California and has also reached out to the Caribbean, which, with its reliance on diesel-generated power and insufficiently managed waste, presents a prime opportunity for Elementa Group’s solutions.
“We’ve reached out into Europe; we’re excited about the opportunities in the UK; we’re working in Spain,” says Zwierschke. “China and India are excellent development opportunities, but we’re not experts on those countries so wish to find business development partners from different geographies to help us disseminate the technology globally.”
To support and grow awareness of the Elementa technology breakthroughs, Elementa Group made a presentation at the International Solid Waste Association annual meeting, held in Vienna from 7-11 of October this year. The Elementa alternate advanced technology for waste conversion, titled Pure Steam Reforming of Municipal Solid Waste, was one of the few alternate-to-incineration technologies accepted for presentation at this congress and was very well received. In November, Elementa Group’s steam reformation technology won an award in the 2013 Defense Energy Technology Challenge/Utility Technology Challenge.
“As soon as we break ground in Sault Ste Marie, we’ll be in a position to enable other projects,” he adds. “We plan to have about half a dozen projects in the pipeline and ready for implementation by the end of next year.”
Zwierschke says that Elementa Group’s business model is flexible: it is open to licencing its technology, or forming joint ventures with other companies in order to disseminate that technology. For him, the most important thing is spreading the technology around the world and to where it’s most needed.
“We have a platform technology that’s going to create a lot of benefits, and I think with the right infrastructure it could provide power and other clean energy options, stability and growth to developing countries,” he comments. “We see various parts of the world where waste is a real problem and damaging public health, and where they also need access to clean power. We have the perfect solution for them.
“So that’s our vision, to widely disseminate the technology,” Zwierschke continues. “We want to get the technology out globally and as fast as we can, so that we can make a big difference for future generations.”