In the classic film Back to the Future Part II, the iconic Doc Brown uses a banana peel and other trash to power the DeLorean time machine through a neat device called Mr. Fusion. Doc Brown purchased and modified Mr. Fusion in some far flung future. However, now trash to fuel, a once fantastic and futuristic idea, is becoming a reality.
The idea of turning garbage into fuel is not a new idea, and already there are pilot plants collecting methane from landfills and using it to run garbage trucks. Canadian based company Enerkem has a plan to transform garbage into a fuel source. Recently the company received $60 million dollars in new financing to bring a great technological idea once seen only in movies to your cars gas tank. Enerkem currently makes ethanol from junked utility poles and household garbage—a nice alternative to harvesting and refining corn. Enerkem has partnered with Valero, a major independent oil refiner, and trash hauling mega corporation Waste Management in its trash to fuel endeavor.
In order to make fuel from trash Enerkem must first separate out recyclable materials. The recyclable materials are then shredded and put through a thermochenical process. This process pressures and heats the matter to 400 degrees Celsius, or around or about 750 degrees Fahrenheit. This results in CO, CO2 and H2 gas.
In the next step, Enerkem removes impurities from the produced gasses and mixes it with a catalyst. The result is methanol that can be turned into ethanol which than can be used as a fuel source or a variety of other chemical feedstocks. An added bonus is that once a plant is up and running the excess heat caused by the process can be used to boil water and produce energy.
Many companies are trying to use garbage to make ethanol. However, almost all of these companies have to pay for the raw materials. Not Enerkem; Enerkem is paid to dispose of the garbage, making its feedstock “cost-negative,” in the company’s phrase.
Enerkem is already starting up plants in Quebec and Alberta. The Quebec plant could produce 1.3 million gallons of fuel a year, while the Alberta plant could put out as much as 10 million gallons each year.
Andrew Meggison was born in the state of Maine and educated in Massachusetts. Andrew earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Relations from Clark University and a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Northeastern University. Being an Eagle Scout, Andrew has a passion for all things environmental. In his free time Andrew enjoys writing, exploring the great outdoors, a good film, and a creative cocktail.