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Enerkem’s biomass-to-aviation fuel process wins $5M prize

Enerkem Inc.‘s development of a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from forest biomass has received...

IMAGE: Michel Chornet of Enerkem

Michel Chornet, Enerkem’s vice president of engineering, innovation and operations. (Courtesy Enerkem Inc.)

Enerkem Inc.‘s development of a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from forest biomass has received a $5-million shot in the arm from a Canadian competition created to speed up the development of these specialized fuels.

NRCan‘s The Sky’s the Limit Challenge was open to firms developing clean, sustainable and economically viable aviation fuel in Canada. As one of four finalists, Enerkem first received $2 million in 2019. As the winner, the company has received an additional $5 million to help further commercialize the fuel.

“The SAF has been a focus of ours for several years, if not at least a decade,” said Michel Chornet, Enerkem’s vice president of engineering, innovation and operations. “Why? Because this is what falls into the jargon that we call ‘hard-to-decarbonize sectors.’ ”

Enerkem says its SAF will reduce up to 93 per cent of the GHGs per unit of fossil fuel which it replaces.

The three other challenge finalists were Carbon Engineering of Squamish, B.C., Forge Hydrocarbons of Edmonton, and the SAF+ Consortium in Montreal along with its partners AirTransat and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.

Development of the SAF

Enerkem was founded in 2000 by professor emeritus Dr. Esteban Chornet at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, and today it is headquartered in Montreal. Its original breakthrough was as the first company in the world to produce renewable methanol and ethanol from non-recyclable, non-compostable municipal solid waste at full commercial scale.

Its commercial plant in Edmonton can produce 38 million litres of ethanol from 100,000 tonnes of waste per year.

However, Chornet said the company has been “reprioritizing” its research efforts toward SAF for some time. Enerkem has partnered with private company CRB Innovations, based in Sherbrooke, in developing the process. Chornet is also the scientific director at CRB.

The majority of the research into the SAF was conducted at Enerkem’s Innovation Centre in Westbury, Que. CRB’s contribution has been to deconstruct and fraction the carbon in the biomass into recoverable intermediates.

“There’s a lot of waste biomass that is not being used . . . it has to be exploited in the right manner,” Chornet said, noting that forest biomass is required for this process. “What we use is in combination with our partner (CRB), we’re able to create higher-valued intermediates that we can upgrade.”

Some research was also carried out at the federally owned clean energy research centre CanMet Ottawa. The development of the SAF was headed by Michel, Esteban and Enerkem’s director of catalytic processes, Stéphane Marie-Rose.

While the raw material for the fuel has thus far originated near Enerkem’s Innovation Centre in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Chornet explained the source is “agnostic.” In other words, it doesn’t matter where the forest biomass comes from, because of the upgrading process conducted by Enerkem.

Dominique Boies, the CEO and CFO of Enerkem, cited the “abundant forests” of Canada in a press release. Chornet echoed that potential in the commercialization and production of their SAF.

With the competition won and funding secured, that commercialization is likely not too far behind. Though he declined to provide any details, Chornet said Enerkem has “one step left” before it commercializes the process, but said the company believes it will happen “quite rapidly.”

Enerkem’s future beyond SAF

The aviation sector accounts for three per cent of global GHG emissions, so Chornet and Enerkem are proud of their development. At the same time, the company’s future is not solely in the aviation fuel sector.

“We are not aiming to become SAF producers,” Chornet explained. “What we’re aiming to (do) is partner with stakeholders (such as) refiners, the airline carriers and other groups and we would license our technology to those groups.

“We like to focus on hard-to-decarbonize sectors and resources, like marine and heavy transport.”

The ever-increasing costs of carbon emissions will continue to increase the importance of developing sustainable fuels, and Chornet expects “multiple projects” from Enerkem in the future.

Enerkem is already working on another project with Shell as a partner, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, to build a facility to produce renewable products from non-recyclable waste materials.

It is estimated the facility, which is still under development, will be able to process up to 360,000 tonnes per annum of recycling rejects and produce up to 80,000 tonnes of renewable products, of which around 75 per cent could be SAF and the remainder used for road fuels or to feed circular chemical production.

Aside from the Edmonton facility, Enerkem has another large-scale plant under construction in Varennes, Que.

This week, Enerkem announced the close of $255 million in funding, including $170 million from global multi-energy company Repsol.

That funds will accelerate the adoption and deployment of Enerkem’s technology and to develop new projects in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).

On April 1, Ecoplanta, the non-recyclable waste solution project in El Morrell, Spain, signed a grant agreement with the European Commission to carry out a large-scale project under the Innovation Fund, selected among more than 300 projects to receive up to $145.5 million. This plant, a co-development between Repsol, Enerkem and Spanish company Agbar, is scheduled to be operational in 2026.

It will use Enerkem technology to process an estimated 400,000 tonnes of non-recyclable solid waste per year and produce close to 240,000 tonnes of methanol.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated to include more recent information about the Rotterdam project, and to correct how funds from Enerkem’s most recent fundraising round will be deployed. SustainableBiz apologizes for the error.

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