Chemistry & Life Sciences

Moving from a Linear Economy to a Circular Economy

Growing Demand for Clean Fuels and Renewable Chemicals Triggers the Transition to a Circular Economy

10.06.2020 -

We have all heard the adage: one man‘s trash is another man‘s trea­sure. Flea markets, rummage sales and even today’s online materials exchanges are all based on the trash-to-treasure concept. Yet not all trash is so readily reused or recycled.

Despite all the efforts and programs introduced to recover materials that can be recycled or composted, more than 50% of the 2 billion t of trash generated around the world each year is still landfilled, creating environmental problems and producing methane emissions that are 25 times more harmful than CO2. As society produces ever more trash, and climate change happens seemingly before our eyes, the world needs disruptive innovation to turn every kilogram of waste we generate into something of higher value — and to do so cleanly and economically.

Moving from a Linear Economy to a Circular Economy

Collective efforts and new technologies are helping to divert more garbage from landfills and incineration. Among the new solutions are advanced thermochemical technologies such as the one developed by Enerkem, a Canadian company that transforms waste into high-value biofuels and renewable chemicals. Some 20 years ago, Enerkem’s founders developed and deployed a technology that uses an abundant resource available everywhere — urban waste otherwise destined to landfill or incineration — as feedstock to produce renewable chemical products that find their way into everyday goods, including biofuels, paints, cleaning solvents and glues.

This innovative technology is based on an integrated chemical recycling process that converts carbon-rich solid materials into a clean and stable synthetic gas. This gas is then turned into liquid value-add products using catalysts. In less than 5 minutes, non-recyclable trash (mixed waste stream traditionally destined to landfill or incineration) is converted into methanol and ethanol and be­comes a sought-after treasure — chem­icals that can be used as low-carbon transportation fuels or as renewable chemicals to green our everyday products (fig. 1).

Demand for Clean Fuels and Renewable Chemicals is Real and Growing

While governments are developing policies to address the need for more sustainable energy, including low-carbon transportation fuels, global consumer goods manufacturers are also putting pressure on leading chem­ical manufacturers to replace hydrocarbon-based products with renewable chemical alternatives to meet the demand of their own customers.

“Demand for renewable transportation
fuels and chemicals is significant and global.”

Demand for renewable transportation fuels and chemicals is significant and global. Governments worldwide are mandating the use of renewables in the conventional fuel pool. According to Biofuels Digest, 65 countries had renewables targets or mandates in 2019. Ethanol is the most popular biofuel around the world. It is a biodegradable alcohol that replaces a portion of the gasoline used to fuel cars and serves as an oxygenate given its high-octane level. Producing ethanol from non-recy­clable waste not only reduces greenhouse emissions in the transportation sector, it also reduces the volume of waste being landfilled or incinerated and complements upstream waste management activities such as recycling and composting.

At the same time, retail product manufacturers are looking for solutions to green their products as well. One of the key elements in reducing the carbon footprint of everyday products is to use renewable chemicals as ingredients. Using waste as a feedstock for the production of chemicals rather than fossil sources does just that and is a way to reduce the footprint of products and to transition from a linear economy to a circular one. It’s yet another example of the trash-to-treasure model at work.

From Idea to Commercial Reality

Back in 2005, an emeritus university professor and PhD in chemical engineering together with his visionary son launched a cleantech start-up to pursue what was then idea distant dream. Turning household waste into a valuable raw material is no small undertaking, and what many believed to be near-impossible to achieve has since turned into a disruptive technology that has led to the world’s first waste-to-biofuel company, Enerkem.

Developing and implementing an industrial technology innovation to take on some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues — waste disposal and low-carbon transportation — was no easy task. Ensur­ing proper financing throughout the growth phases, building a sound business model and a solid IP strategy while establishing strong relation­ships with project partners were considerable challenges that any entrepreneur would find overwhelming. These could not be overcome without an engaged and experienced team giv­ing their all to build and operate the first commercial plant of its kind and to develop an efficient modular manufacturing infrastructure for constructing future plants. One thing that became abundantly clear in the process — a new industrial revolution, that of circularity, has begun — and it’s being driven by cleantech innovators.

Transforming Waste into Advanced Biofuels

Today, Enerkem’s facility in Edmonton, Alberta, is the world’s first commercial facility of its kind to use municipal solid waste to produce renewable methanol and ethanol. At full capacity, the facility will transform 100,000 dry tons of household trash annually to produce a synthetic gas and convert it into advanced low-carbon transportation fuel. This is enough to fuel over 450,000 cars on a 5% ethanol blend in the fuel pool. The facility is not only helping decarbonize the transportation sector, it’s also helping the City of Edmonton reach its goal of increas­ing its waste diversion rate to 90%. The advanced biofuels produced by Enerkem help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% and more when compared to fossil fuel production and landfilling.

“Society needs disruptive innovation that turns
problems into clean and effective solutions.”

With waste volumes continuously growing and compounding global climate and economic challenges, society needs disruptive innovation that turns problems into clean and effective solutions. Technologies like those of Enerkem are proving that even non-recyclable trash can become treasure. Combined with the vision of municipal leaders committed to concrete action to develop tomorrow’s economy, these innovations are also key to creating sustainable prosperity and growth for all.



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