Enerkem’s Family Affair

Vincent Chornet’s entrepreneurial appetite, combined with his father’s vision of a technology, may change the trajectories of the waste and biofuels industries forever.
By Tim Portz | April 24, 2014

Enerkem President and CEO Vincent Chornet and his team have driven Enerkem along a commercialization pathway for the past 10 years. As Enerkem’s first commercial-scale deployment in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, enters its commissioning phase, its technology will have its commercial debut to deliver on its promise. Once fully commissioned and operational, Enerkem’s Edmonton facility will simultaneously jumpstart a new era in two industries. As the first gallons of production emerge from the plant, and throughput races toward nameplate targets, both the waste management and advanced biofuels industries hold their collective breaths. The implications of a successful commissioning for both of these massive industries are hard to overstate, but Chornet remains grounded and committed to the company’s measured and pragmatic commercialization approach.

Your grandfather utilized the wood waste from his sawmill in Spain in the 1930s to produce electricity. What do you know about the process he utilized, and how much of an impact did that have on your father’s development of the Enerkem process?

Enerkem’s breakthrough technology and its commercial development are the ultimate results of a desire to create energy and high-value products from otherwise wasted materials.  My father, Dr. Esteban Chornet, devoted his entire academic career to this quest of transforming biomass and waste into energy.  Together, we saw the opportunity to develop and bring his technology to the market, and that we could unlock the value of waste, reduce landfilling and produce green energy and green chemicals.

Your background is in startups and entrepreneurialism. Your father, Enerkem’s chief technology officer, is a man of science. How do these different backgrounds impact the way each of you approach work at Enerkem?

Our backgrounds are complementary and allowed us to combine both the scientific and business approach. As a world-renowned scientist, my father was able to lead the research and innovation, with the engineering teams who developed the company’s proprietary technology. As an entrepreneur with a financial and commercial background, I’ve been driving the growth of the company through each of its development phases, with a rigorous stage-gating approach that allowed us to get to the commercial phase, while attracting high-quality investors and partners that felt comfortable with our prudent approach.

Enerkem has attracted a broad portfolio of institutional investors, ranging from waste companies to oil companies. What is it about Enerkem’s value proposition that has generated this strong investor participation?

We have a strong business model, a game-changing technology and market potential that is huge.  The use of municipal solid waste (MSW) to produce biofuels is uncommon, and Enerkem is the only one today building a commercial advanced biofuels facility that focuses on the use of nonrecyclable MSW. We already produce biomethanol and ethanol from mixed urban wastes at our demonstration facility, and with the Edmonton facility, our technology is now entering the commercial stage, after extensive and rigorous piloting and testing.  Our manufacturing approach is also based on a plant model that is modular, compact and standardized, for efficient equipment manufacturing.

MSW has attracted a fair number of technology developers but commercial-scale production remains on the horizon.  From a conversion standpoint, what makes this feedstock so attractive, yet challenging?

Enerkem is the first company to have developed a technology that can break down waste materials that are chemically and structurally dissimilar—such as MSW—and convert them into a pure, stable and homogeneous syngas, which we then turn into biofuels and chemicals.  We have developed and validated our technology over a period of 13 years, using MSW from numerous municipalities and a broad variety of other feedstocks, such as wood and agricultural residues.  Given the breakthrough character of this technology in how we handle waste and produce our fuels and chemicals, I would say that many have tried, but few have had the patience to follow a stepwise approach like we did.

From Enerkem’s four-step process––feedstock preparation, gasification,
syngas cleaning/conditioning, and catalytic synthesis––which has proven most challenging, from a development and commercialization perspective?

Handling the solid waste materials has probably been the most challenging part.  We did put a lot of work and investment into optimizing the flow of our feedstock feeding system.  I’m quite proud of the solutions developed by the team and successfully implemented at our industrial demonstration facility in Westbury. Frankly, I don’t think anyone in the industry has ever taken the route that we did to solve these issues.

Enerkem’s first commercial-scale facility is under construction in Edmonton, Alberta. How was Edmonton selected as the site?

We were actually selected by the city of Edmonton. At the time, the landfill was reaching capacity, and they needed to find a solution. They evaluated 100 technologies from around the world with an objective to increase the diversion rate of their residential waste stream from 60 to 90 percent, while being complementary to their current recycling and composting initiatives. Enerkem’s technology was selected as a result of this global independent evaluation.

How far along is construction of the

As a company, we achieved a major milestone when we began the commissioning of our first full-scale commercial facility in Edmonton. We are following a rigorous commissioning plan, and it is advancing well, meaning that we will soon be producing biomethanol in Edmonton. This is a world-class facility that could change the global waste industry, and we are applying the very same rigor here that enabled us to grow and be where we are today.

Enerkem will begin producing the chemical intermediate methanol first, and then add an ethanol module to the facility. What is driving this strategy?

This is how our process works: we produce methanol first and we then turn it into ethanol or other renewable chemicals.  We began producing ethanol from waste at our demonstration facility in Westbury back in 2012.  Our conversion process is complete and ready to be deployed at full scale.  Maximizing methanol production in Edmonton is a strategy that will enable us to generate revenues, while we build the ethanol production module and install it at site, in particular in a context where methanol prices in North America have recently been high. 

In just over 10 years, Enerkem has advanced its technology from pilot-scale production to the construction of a commercial-scale facility. Where do you hope to find Enerkem 10 years from now?

Enerkem is a fast-growing company, and there is a lot of interest in what we do.  We want to be a world-scale biofuels and biochemicals producer in seven years.  To me, our facility in Edmonton also marks our entry into a completely different market dynamic, and I believe that this plant will have considerable repercussions, not only on the waste management sector, but on liquid transportation fuel and green chemical production as well.  For now, we are developing projects in North America, and we are evaluating potential projects in the Middle East and China.  The issues addressed by our technology exist anywhere around the world.