New Fuels for Fuel: Making it from Waste

biofuel-carrot.jpgEnerkem, a Montreal maker of biofuels and green chemicals, says it’s nearly ready to start cranking out second-generation biofuels on a commercial scale. The company’s approach is to turn waste materials (it’s starting with old utility poles) into a synthetic gas “syngas,” which it will then use as a chemical feedstock for making both ethanol and methanol, using a gas-to-liquid conversion. But – and here’s where it gets very promising – the company claims it will eventually be able to use municipal waste (all the stuff that’s left over after recycling and composting) into syngas.
Enerkem has plans to ramp up from its initial annual production of 1.3 million gallons in order to take a bite out of demand. Canada is targeting a standard of at least 5 percent ethanol content in the gasoline and diesel sold to drivers in the country by 2010, and the Energy and Independence Security Act of 2007 mandated that 36 billion gallons of ethanol be produced by 2022. But 22 billion of those must come from non-corn sources.
And as gas gurus gathered in San Francisco last week for the 2009 National Biodiesel Conference, the city by the bay announced its intention to erect a plant that will convert brown grease from restaurants into, among other things, biodiesel.

Unlike the relatively clean yellow grease that’s already widely used for biofuel, brown grease, which often goes by the acronym FOG (fats, oils, grease), is the heavy slurry that collects in sewer traps. Or, as often happens, it overflows the traps and clogs sewers. It represents a major sewage problem for municipalities – in fact San Francisco spends approximately $3.5 million each year clearing FOG out of the pipes. So turning this nasty business into fuel is, on paper, a great idea.
That said, it will be interesting to see how efficiently San Francisco will be able to turn it into black gold. One issue is that FOG is 97% water and the rest is really nasty sludge that needs to be intensely refined. That takes a huge amount of energy. At a pilot program at the San Francisco Public Utility Commission, researchers have been collecting FOG from area eateries and converting it to fuel, but it has been using latent heat and recyclable water at the plant in the production
In Philadelphia, biofuel startup BlackGold Biofuels says it has devised a proprietary process for extracting water and impurities from FOG and converting it into biofuel, but the volumes of FOG the company is collecting are too low to generate much fuel (see: this link). Meanwhile, another company called Grease Reduction Systems is offering restaurants a means of breaking down that drain-grease before it even turns into FOG. It uses microbes to eat away at the grease and the byproduct ain’t nothing but water (see: this link)..
Which begs the question: Is it better to eliminate a waste product if it can be done in a benign way, or should we collect waste and try to extract further value from it, even if that extraction process requires lots of energy? What do you think?

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

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