Imagine if you could fuel your car with trash like in the 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future. That’s exactly the type of disruptive technology one Canadian company is bringing to market. Enerkem, a leading waste-to-biofuels and chemicals producer, offers a sustainable and economical alternative to landfills and the incineration of waste while reducing oil dependence.

The process uses non-recyclable garbage instead of petroleum to produce liquid transportation fuels and chemicals at the lowest cost. The company operates the world’s first full-scale commercial biorefinery facility in Alberta, where it converts the City of Edmonton’s solid waste into methanol and ethanol.

“Fossil sources are depleting, so it is important that we continue to reduce our dependency,” says Pierre Boisseau, Enerkem’s Senior Director of Marketing and Communications. “This is true for the entire linear economy, which encompasses any non-renewable resource that we extract, use, and dispose of.”

Building the new circular economy

Using carbon-based garbage that can’t be recycled, Enerkem’s patented technology breaks down chemically and structurally dissimilar waste, including plastic materials, into a pure syngas. “This is a truly Canadian innovation that we’ve developed over the last 15 years. It enables us to recuperate and recycle carbon-rich materials otherwise destined for landfills,” says Boisseau.

First, the trash is turned into synthetic gas by a mixture of 700C sand, oxygen, and steam. The gas is then cleaned of any impurities by a series of scrubbers before the carbon monoxide and hydrogen molecules are recombined into methanol. The methanol is then mixed with more carbon monoxide and hydrogen, to get ethanol.
“From trash to ethanol, the whole process takes only five minutes,” he says. “In doing so, we create a truly circular economy by diversifying the energy mix and making everyday products greener.”

Clean growth for all

Currently employing more than 200 professionals and engineers, Enerkem has a growth plan to implement several of its leading-edge facilities in Canada and around the world.

While in operation, each facility creates 150 permanent jobs and increases local annual net economic spending by $65 million.