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Cellulosic Ethanol from Solid Waste: A Case Study

One of the biggest worldwide problems of the 21st century is waste and its efficient management. Preventing big landfills is in the common interest of everyone, as they are not a sustainable nor an economically feasible arrangement.

The last decade has seen a few solutions focused on battling the phenomenon of rising rubbish piles, such as developed waste management systems, donation schemes and waste-to-energy innovations.

One such effort was announced mid-September by one of the world’s leading renewable chemical and biofuel producing companies. Canadian-based Enerkem Inc intends on commercially manufacturing cellulosic ethanol from “mixed municipal solid waste”, which is the hardest waste to rework due to its non-compostable, and non-recyclable nature. Examples of such waste are plastic, glass, and obsolete electronic products, and as they further break and mix in the landfill, they become nearly impossible to reuse.

As one of the most rapidly growing subsectors of energy, biofuel is a natural choice for the end product. The process involves the company’s own technology of recycling the carbon contained in the solid waste by converting it into a pure synthesis gas. Technically known as syngas, it is then converted into biofuels using various catalysts. By using waste instead of the usual sources of advanced biofuels, such as residual forest biomass or energy crops, this cellulosic ethanol uses material that would not normally be biodegradable. In addition, it not only works on balancing out the production/use of waste ratio, but it is also a way to reduce the accumulated waste.

The company is the first one in the world to produce cellulosic ethanol on a commercial scale. According to their CEO and President, Vincent Chornet, Enerkem is planning further expansion in the future: “We will now progressively increase production in Edmonton, while preparing to build the next Enerkem facilities locally and around the world.”

Whilst Dashboard is very excited about such a future facing solution for both biofuel and sustainability needs, it is important to remember that biofuel on its own is not enough to meet the demands. Despite this, such developments are a step in the green direction.