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Canada pushes the Biofuel Frontiers

Four enterprising Canadian firms have joined the race to replace fossil fuels with affordable and planet-friendly second-generation bio alternatives.

Toronto, Canada Despite decades of work, most next-generation biofuels — made from materials that do not compete with food production — are still at the reaserch and development stage. But a few Canadian operations are among the dozen or so that are either commercial or very near to it — and each has the potential to change how the world fuels up its vehicles.
Enerkem: Speeding to Market
Since its emergence from a small research laboratory in Sherbrooke University in 1999, Quebec-based Enerkem has continued to pursue aggressive growth, and it is now completing a large commercial facility to turn Edmonton’s municpal garbage into some 36 million litres of bioethanol a year. The plant, scheduled to begin operating from mid-2011 onwards, is set to become the world’s first commercial operation to turn municipal solid waste (about 100,000 tonnes annually) into ethanol for fuelling vehicles.
And that’s just the beginning. The privately held company is modelling its future development on partnerships such as its 25-year contract with the City of Edmonton, which Enerkem claims is the world’s only long-term feedstock supply agreement between a fuel and chemical producer and a large municipality.
Denis Arguin, vice president of engineering and project implementation at Enerkem, has also outlined a similar C$250 million (US$242 million) deal with a waste management company in Pontotoc, Mississippi. The resulting 20 million gallon (75,708 m³) per year bioethanol from municipal solid waste (MSW) plant would have twice the capacity of the Edmonton facility.
After more than 3500 hours of testing with over 20 types of feedstock since 2000 — first in a pilot and then a demonstration plant — Vincent Chornet, president and CEO, warns other emerging renewable energy companies “not to skip any steps”. In his view, “the long but necessary pilot step is an absolute need before your first industrial scale-up”. “Don’t try to rush into it. You’ll pay the price after.”
Chornet also urges new companies to be creative. For new enterprises, finding financing is always the barrier — and Enerkem’s ability to court a mix of financial partners shows creative thinking. Its money comes from equity funding, government support and long-term partnerships with industry or municipalities.
One final piece of advice for emerging companies? Clear communication, says Chornet. “Make sure your business plan and technology development path are well articulated and that results are well explained to your shareholders.”
Confidence also goes a long way when you’re pitching a revolutionary idea. Asked what he would have done differently on Enerkem’s route to commercialisation, Chornet’s answer is “nothing”.
Ensyn: The Joiner
This Ottawa company came up with its fast pyrolysis technology 25 years ago, when oil prices were still in their teens. Ensyn stuck to its promising technology — which turns biomass like wood waste into a thick ‘pyrolysis oil’ — and is currently replacing fossil fuels in heating and electricity applications, especially in the forest products sector, where a ready supply of wood waste can offset significant costs associated with process power demands.
But what has most tongues wagging is using pyrolysis oil to produce renewable ‘drop-in’ transportation fuels and — thanks to a deal with UOP, a subsidiary of Honeywell — Ensyn has got a lot closer to the finish line. The idea here is to refine the pyrolysis oil to a state where it can be slotted into existing oil refinery infrastructure in order to produce green gasoline, diesel and jet fuels.
Senior vice-president Randall Goodfellow says Ensyn could have taken its technology to market itself but “it’s a super humongous task and there are already people who have those connections”. UOP and Ensyn formed Envergent Technologies in October 2008 to speed up global deployment of Ensyn’s fast pyrolysis technology to produce pyrolysis oil for thermal and electrical applications, as well as to commercialise the equipment to upgrade pyrolysis oil into renewable liquid transport fuel. Goodfellow says this kit will be ready for fitting into the existing fossil oil refining infrastructure by 2012.
Dynamotive: Adapting to a Changing Market
Another promising Canadian biofuel producer is Vancouver’s Dynamotive Energy Systems. Using leftover and waste wood such as construction waste, Dynamotive has been producing bio-oil for years at its 130 tonne per day West Lorne plant, fuelling a 2.5 MW turbine to make power for the Ontario grid, and also supplying a US customer.
But the economic downturn has sparked a fresh approach from management. Instead of playing project developer, Dynamotive is now also seeking solid partners.
Company chief executive Andrew Kingston has said Dynamotive has several potential plants and deals ready, in China, Argentina, Australia and Europe, for example. In 2010 the company is concentrating on those at the financing stage, with a focus on third-party licensing, he said.
Like Ensyn, Dynamotive’s big goal is to perfect a process to upgrade its heavy bio-oil into a middle distillate that can be used in existing refineries. Also like Ensyn, it’s racing to be the first.
Nexterra: Seeing the Forest through the Trees
This west-coast company initially developed its small gasification units for large pulp and paper or lumber facilities to use leftover wood for heat and/or power, cutting their consumption of fossil fuels or enabling them to sell electricity to the grid. But when the forest industry took another turn for the worse, Nexterra shifted its attention to urban markets.
Nexterra has sold its gasification systems not only to pulp and plywood mills but also to environmentally minded universities, communities and municipalities that want to provide, low-cost renewable energy. The firm’s technology will soon heat and power the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where an US$89 million project is being led by Nexterra’s partner Johnson Controls. The two companies formed a strategic alliance to develop biomass gasification projects after working together on a similar project at the University of South Carolina.
By tapping into new markets Nexterra has continually won new rounds of investment from Calgary private equity firm ARC Financial, which holds a majority stake in the company, to pursue an aggressive development path. In the next stage of development Nexterra plans to use its gasification systems to generate heat and power from small-scale plants (2-10 MWe) by direct firing of syngas in high-efficiency gas engines.
With a full house of second-generation biofuels players, Canada is evidently hoping to make the most of its bio-energy resources.