The New Fuel Paradigm: Making ethanol from garbage

It would seem our search for new and sustainable sources of fuel is paying off in more ways than we’d ever thought possible. Enerkem, A Montreal-based company is getting set to produce up to 1.3 million gallons of ethanol from recycled phone poles and garbage over the next year.

If there’s anything we’ll never run out of, it’s probably garbage.

According to a report in The New York Times today, a major independent oil refiner named Valero, has made an initial investment in the company in addition to trash-haulers, Waste Management, stake in the venture, bringing the total investment in Enerkem to $130 million.

The article, filed by Mathew L. Wald, goes on to say Enerkem is starting up a large scale plant near Sherbrooke, Quebec, with a capacity of 1.3 million gallons a year, and planning another in Edmonton, Alberta, capable of producing 10 million gallons.

They have recently received a $50 million grant/loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy for yet a third plant in Tupelo, MS of equal size to the Alberta facility. Between the two plants, 100,000 tons of garbage would be recycled into ethanol every year, according to company estimates.

No opening date was provided for the Edmonton plant would open, where the company has a 25-year contract to accept municipal solid waste, including anything tossed away by residents.

“We’re on site and things are moving ahead very well,’’ said Vincent Chornet, the president and chief executive of Enerkem.

Recyclables are separated and the remainder is shredded and heated to 750 degrees Fahrenheit at which point the waste gives off a gas including hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Enerkem removes the impurities, including CO2 and passes the gas through a catalyst, thus converting it to methanol, which in turn can be processed into ethanol or a variety of other chemicals.

The process is primed by burning natural gas or propane, but once underway the gasification produces heat, which can be used to boil water for steam turbines to make electricity.

A number of companies are using waste materials to make ethanol, but most of them pay for the raw materials. Enerkem is paid to dispose of the garbage, making its feedstock what they call “cost-negative.”

We’d call it “profitable.”

The product meets the federal guidelines for an advanced cellulosic biofuel, one that comes from plant material but not from food. That makes it valuable to a quota that fuel distributors must meet.

Making ethanol from garbage produces much lower greenhouse emissions as opposed to corn-based ethanol. Corn requires large amounts of natural gas, but the Enerkem process works with the heat given off by the process itself so no fossil fuels are burned except during start-up. Trash turned into fuel is trash not placed in a landfill, where it can evolve methane and other toxic fumes.

It would seem if we just keep looking we might just find all the energy we need right about us.

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