April 22, 2022

Earth Day 2022: reimagining waste for big impact

Waste is value in disguise

In celebration of Earth Day 2022, we’re profiling a few activities underway in Alberta and Canada that exploring the idea of turning waste into a value -added product.

Every effort to keep waste out of our landfills and use it in new ways is significant and laudable. But there are a handful of Alberta-based technologies that are transforming waste in a way that can make a major impact on humanity’s carbon footprint and our planet. They’re tackling the big problems that are well known—fuel and plastic—and they’re making a difference.

Expander Energy

For the past 14 years, Expander has been developing technologies to produce liquid fuel from cellulose and other low-carbon-intensity energy sources. Now they’re focused on transforming wood waste from the lumber industry into fossil-free diesel and aviation fuel, providing a sustainable alternative to fuel generated by oil and gas.

Expander Energy is currently securing financing for its first commercial facility in Slave Lake, Alberta. The facility will use bark and waste wood to generate net-zero carbon intensity renewable diesel fuel.

Diesel fuel produced by conventional means generates approximately 100 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule in terms of lifecycle carbon emissions. Expander Energy’s process allows them to produce a near identical fuel that can be used in existing diesel engines that is of a higher quality than traditional petroleum, with net-zero lifecycle carbon emissions.

“Expander is an Alberta-based company with a  solution to develop our province’s resources in a way that is consistent with a net-zero carbon economy,” says Gord Crawford, vice-president, Engineering, Expander Energy. “We’re using forestry waste that is part of a circular carbon cycle as opposed to petroleum carbon, which is unidirectional—it comes out of the ground and goes into the atmosphere and there is no return trip.”

One of Expander’s technologies has been successfully implemented in the Rocky Mountain GTL facility in Carseland, Alberta. The facility uses natural gas to produce clean-burning synthetic diesel. The same synthetic diesel process will be used in Expander’s upcoming biomass-derived fuel facilities.  Alberta Innovates was involved in de-risking that technology.

“We helped show that the technology was scalable,” says Michael Kerr, director of Regional Innovation at Alberta Innovates. “Ultimately, Expander’s technology will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create new jobs that support a net-zero carbon economy.”

Learn more about Expander Energy.

Forge Hydrocarbons

In 2003, David Bressler, a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, introduced a technology that converts inedible oils and fats, such as corn oil and tallow, into diesel and gasoline. Today, Forge Hydrocarbons, a company registered in Alberta with activities in Edmonton, is modifying the core technology to be able to generate sustainable aviation fuel.

“Aviation, marine and rail are the areas where you need a high-density source for at least the next few decades for carbon reduction,” says Bressler. “The Forge technology is very carbon efficient, so you’re looking at a substantial reduction in carbon footprint. But it’s also creating value-added pathways for agricultural waste oils, brown greases—any oils and fats.”

Support from Alberta Innovates has helped from the early days. Kerr helped connect Bressler and his team with industry players interested in bio-products. “Forge Hydrocarbons is a good example of how we can take fundamental research to application. Keeping that momentum going helps us solve the problems of tomorrow,” says Kerr.

Alberta Innovates recently invested in Forge Hydrocarbons to help them get jet fuel production up and running. Forge was able to leverage its own money as well as the invested amount to get substantial federal investments, which helped move the technology forward and resulted in major investments in both processing equipment and analytical labs in Alberta.

Today, Forge Hydrocarbon has a demonstration commercial facility in Ontario and plans are in place to build facilities across North America.

Learn more about Forge Hydrocarbon.

Enerkem

Non-recyclable plastic has been a major challenge in our effort to reduce the amount of waste that reaches landfills every year. In Canada, just nine per cent of plastic is recycled, often because it’s contaminated.

“There’s so much that falls in between the cracks that can’t get into the recycling stream. So we needed a scalable solution that can take this material and upgrade it back into high-quality raw materials that go back to into the value chain,” explains David Lynch, general manager of Research and Development at Enerkem.

Enerkem, in partnership with Alberta-based NOVA Chemicals (NOVA), is showing what’s possible. The companies are working together to take traditionally non-recyclable waste material, break it down into syngas, and convert it directly into feedstocks to make virgin-grade plastics.

“This technology is about diverting waste from landfills and recycling the carbon into raw materials that can be used in industry.” says Mehr Nikoo, senior manager, Clean Technology, Alberta Innovates. “It is a true example of how a circular economy can benefit our environment.”

Bill Santos, director of Future Focus Research & Development at NOVA, explains that the company wants to be a leader in the plastics circular economy, and is also working to design a low-carbon, zero-plastic waste future. “By using municipal solid waste as feedstock, we not only are able to divert traditionally non-recyclable waste away from landfills, we are also able to reduce the levels of greenhouse gas emissions that would typically be released,” he says.

Thanks in part to funding from Alberta Innovates, Enerkem and NOVA Chemicals are now taking their chemical recycling technology to the pilot stage. The project is expected to help in achieving a projected 60 per cent market share of recycled and renewable content in plastics by 2050.

Learn more about Enerkem.