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Enerkem: Raking in Garbage and Venture Bucks

Even after we’ve reduced, re-used, recycled, and composted everything we can, we are still faced with some odd items that are just trash. But on an elemental level, there is nothing that can’t be recycled if one is willing to put in a little extra effort and capital.

Enerkem plant in Westbury, Quebec. Credit: Enerkem

Canadian waste-to-fuels start-up Enerkem is willing, and this week it has been helped along with $59 million in venture funds from current investors including Waste Management and new investor Valero Energy. Enerkem has three plants in the works  where, as the company is fond of saying, carbon can be recycled into fuels and chemicals.

Enerkem takes municipal solid waste (and other end-of-life wastes) and gasifies it at about 700 C. It then cleans up the resulting syngas and uses catalysts to convert the gas into products such as methanol. The products can be used to make ethanol, synthetic diesel, dimethyl ether, and even synthetic gasoline, says the firm.

It’s a bit more sophisticated than just burning trash for energy, but it similarly keeps materials out of  landfills. The technology helped the company secure $130 million from USDA and DOE for a plant in Pontotoc, Miss. expected to break ground later this year. Meanwhile, Enerkem is building a plant in Edmonton, Alberta. The firm also has two plants in Quebec, including a demonstration facility.

According to a recent report from Pike Research (or at least a summary of the report that happened to appear as I was reading about Enerkem’s haul), both mainstream incineration for energy and new fangled gasification and biological technologies are on a growth trajectory. Why? Because the world produces a lot of trash, that’s why. Here’s some numbers on current operations from the summary:

“Today, more than 900 thermal [waste-to-energy] plants operate around the world and treat an estimated 0.2 billion tons of [municipal solid waste] with an output of approximately 130 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity.”

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