Trash to Bio-Treasure

Two cellulosic ethanol developers are about to go prime time, turning garbage into biofuel at separate facilities in Canada and the U.S.
By Holly Jessen | October 11, 2013

What’s valuable about an old T-shirt and a soiled cardboard Big Mac container? While most people think nothing of tossing these items out, waste-to-energy firms like Enerkem and Fiberight LLC have a plan to keep garbage like this out of landfills while producing alternative fuels. While there are a few other developers looking at producing biofuels from municipal solid waste (MSW), these two companies are the closest to actual commercial-scale production, each recently reaching significant milestones in that quest. 

Enerkem is first in line to complete its facility, with a 10 MMgy biofuel and renewable chemical plant being built in Edmonton, Alberta. In mid-September, the company expected to wrap up construction at the end of October, with a plant inauguration planned in the fall, says Marie-Helene Labrie, vice president of government affairs and communications for Enerkem. Initially, the facility will produce methanol, with cellulosic ethanol production expected in 2014. 

The company has a 25-year agreement with the city of Edmonton, which will supply 100,000 dry metric tons of sorted MSW yearly. Once the facility reaches full production levels, the city will reduce its landfill waste to only 10 percent of residential garbage by diverting feedstock for Enerkem in combination with a previously established recycling and composting program. Labrie called the project a world first, adding that it’s a good example of how cities can transition to a greener economy. “This is part of our strategy and vision,” she says, “to not only offer a domestic energy solution but also help resolve waste management issues.” 

In eastern Iowa, Fiberight reached a 15-year MSW supply agreement with the city of Marion in late August. The company is already working to retrofit a former corn-ethanol plant in nearby Blairstown, Iowa, which, when completed, will produce 6 MMgy of cellulosic ethanol from MSW processed in Marion, says Craig Stuart-Paul, chief executive of Fiberight. The goal is to start construction on a waste separation and recycling plant there by the end of the year. “We should be commissioning from about eight months from start of construction,” he says. The ethanol plant, on the other hand, is expected to begin production by about next summer. 

The company has put in requests for proposals for MSW supply agreements in several other cities around the U.S. “What we are seeing is, the municipal market is very, very interested in this as an option for waste disposal,” he says. In mid-September, a proposal was submitted to Iowa City, located in the same area of Iowa as Marion and Blairstown. Although the MSW from Marion is sufficient for commercial operation of the Blairstown ethanol plant, if an agreement is reached with Iowa City, the additional feedstock will be enough to take the plant to full capacity, he says. 

Both companies are utilizing feedstock models for which the cities supplying MSW pay a tipping fee for the ability to dispose of its waste. On the other hand, there are a few differences between the company’s approaches. While Enerkem will receive already separated and sorted MSW from the city of Edmonton, Fiberight will operate the solid waste facility itself. In addition, Enerkem’s biofuel feedstock stream will contain some plastics. Fiberight, which is working with a different set of regulatory requirements under the U.S. renewable fuel standard, will not utilize plastics as an ethanol feedstock. 

Canadian Model  

Enerkem scaled up from its pilot plant to a 1.3 MMgy demonstration facility in Westbury, Quebec, with operations beginning in 2009, followed by methanol production in 2011 and cellulosic ethanol production in 2012. “We are very excited by the work we have done and all the steps we have taken from pilot to demo to now full-scale commercial facility,” Labrie says.

Enerkem Alberta Biofuels LP, is co-located with the Edmonton Waste Management Center, where garbage and recycling from more than 324,000 single- and multifamily homes is processed. The city has had a recycling program in place for 25 years and 93 percent of single-family households participate voluntarily, says Connie Boyce, director of community relations for Edmonton’s Waste Management Services. Residents put recyclable items, such as paper, cardboard, tin cans, glass and certain types of plastic, into blue bags. Garbage, such as food waste, yard waste and smaller household items, go into a separate can or bag. Currently, 60 percent of the total amount collected is diverted from being trucked more than 40 miles to a landfill, due to the fact that Edmonton’s landfill ran out of space and closed in 2009. By about 2016, when the Enerkem facility is expected to be producing at full strength, the city expects to increase that to a 90 percent diversion rate, Boyce says. 

The city sells recyclable materials, using the revenue as a small portion of its operating budget, she adds. The garbage is separated into three streams, including organic material, which is sent to a composting facility, where agricultural or residential and business landscaping products are produced and sold as another revenue source. Other materials will go to the refuse-derived fuel facility where it is shredded for Enerkem’s use as a biofuel feedstock. The remaining portion that is not recyclable, organic or useable by Enerkem is sent to the landfill.

What, specifically, are the types of items Enerkem will receive as feedstock material? The list starts with paper and cardboard products that can’t be recycled, perhaps because they are soiled, Labrie says. Other examples include wood, old clothing, worn out shoes and broken plastic toys, an example of a type of plastic that cannot be recycled but can be broken down into biofuels. “It’s really a mix,” she says. 

The company is pleased to have the opportunity to work with Edmonton, a North American leader in waste management. “It’s really a center of excellence for waste management,” she says. “There are visitors from around the world that are coming to visit what the city of Edmonton has implemented as well as their partnerships with private companies like ours.” 

American Made 

Fiberight’s Lawrenceburg, Va., 500,000 gallon a year demonstration plant has been producing cellulosic ethanol for 3,000 hours. Although the company announced in August 2012 that it planned to double the capacity, Fiberight later decided it had already hit its mark at that facility and elected instead to focus on fine-tuning its integrated technology in preparation for building its first commercial plant, Stuart-Paul says.

In January 2012, the USDA announced Fiberight was the recipient of a conditional commitment for a $25 million guaranteed loan. In order to reach the loan guarantee phase, the company had to satisfy some significant requirements, which it has now achieved. Stuart-Paul is hopeful that it will move from the conditional to loan guarantee phase by the end of the year, he says. 

One prerequisite for that was to prove out every element of its demonstration plant, from its MSW sorting and separation process to production of cellulosic ethanol. After going through that process, Stuart-Paul agrees that it was a valuable exercise. “We learned an awful lot of lessons, hard-fought lessons, along the way,” he says. “And we were able to overcome a lot of the problems at a smaller scale than if we had just gone ahead and built the full-scale plant from a pilot plant.” 

Another requirement for the pending loan guarantee was U.S. EPA approval of the company’s separation plan, which happened in August 2012. The separation plan identifies 10 technologies and practices for sorting recyclables from MSW, including shredding, washing, air separation, optic sorting and more. “We are very much focused around the front-end recycling and recovery of the materials and particularly plastics,” he says. “I think that’s one thing some other people have had challenges with, how do you keep the plastics out of the cellulosic ethanol? Our position is that it’s possible to do so.”

Anything that can be recycled, such as many types of plastics, glass, metal, clean cardboard and paper, will be separated and sold as an additional revenue stream. Other materials, such as yard waste, craft paper and cardboard that isn’t clean enough to be sold as recyclable grade, will go to the ethanol plant in Blairstown. Food waste will end up in the anaerobic digester at the Marion facility to produce compressed natural gas (CNG), which can be marketed as a transportation fuel, including to the fleet belonging to the city of Marion, he says. The fourth and final garbage fraction is what goes to the landfill, such as cat litter and dust. According to the EPA document outlining Fiberight’s separation plan, 70 percent of the trash will be recovered. However, based on Fiberight’s work at its demo plant. Stuart-Paul believes the number will be closer to 80 percent. 

It took a long time to perfect the separation process and get EPA approval, he says. With that completed, the company has the advantage of multiple revenue streams, including from recycling various materials as well as production of ethanol and CNG. “It is a challenge, because of the fact that MSW has got a lot of things in it,” he says. “But it is also an opportunity because you can derive value from many of those elements as possible.”

The whole idea is to take a problem, the disposal of trash, and turn it into something useful. The company is working to trademark the name Trashanol, to highlight the fact that the ethanol it will produce will come from items tossed in the trash. “It’s a remarkable amount of energy that was previously just thrown in a landfill and it broke down to methane. And methane is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “It’s 24 times worse than CO2.” 

Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]