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A Promising Project


February 1, 2009
By Pulp & Paper Canada

The Sherbrooke, Que.-based company, Enerkem, is getting ready to start up a one of a kind factory that will surely attract the eyes of many experts and actors from the political and economic world in …

The Sherbrooke, Que.-based company, Enerkem, is getting ready to start up a one of a kind factory that will surely attract the eyes of many experts and actors from the political and economic world in 2009. The Enerkem installation in Westbury in Quebec’s Estrie region will be among the first in the world to make cellulosic ethanol on an industrial scale. The primary material the factory will use to produce these 5 million litres of ethanol is particularly interesting: it will use urban wood, such as old electricity poles.

In January, the company announced it would soon complete a crucial step in the project and start up its clean conditioned synthesis gas island, which is essential for subsequent ethanol production.

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In a press release, the company stated once the factory is up and running, Enerkem will be the “first producer of liquid fuels and green chemicals to commercially use renewable, non-food, negative-cost feedstock.”

One can easily say this start-up is an important step for the Sherbrooke company itself. But if the project is deemed a success, its impact could be felt globally. It could have a major effect on the debate over what place ethanol has among biofuels, and all the issues surrounding this discussion.

World hunger, for example, is one urgent issue out of numerous others that has not lost any importance. This tragic reality recently found its way into the headlines again due to what has been deemed the global food crisis. The numbers reported on this subject are enough to make you dizzy: since August 2006, food prices in some parts of the world have gone up 83%.

A number of factors have been attributed to this price jump, including a high global demand for basic food staples, such as grains like wheat and corn. Another related issue that has come into play is ethanol.

A number of specialists have become disenchanted with this biofuel, particularly ethanol derived from wheat and corn. In the beginning, the arrival of this type of ethanol was praised by a number of ecologists, consumers and leaders. However, it is becoming more apparent every day that diverting a part of corn production towards ethanol creates a drop in supply, resulting in a price-rise for the grain.

The opposition toward this biofuel can be felt in Europe, however this sentiment does not seem to have made it to Canada. In spring 2008, for example, the majority of federal members of Parliament voted to require gasoline in Canada to have 5% ethanol content. Well done! However, the catch is the legislation does not specify whether or not the ethanol to be used will be corn-or wheat-derived.

Two-thirds of ethanol currently produced in Canada comes from corn, which unfortunately leads one to believe this is the type of ethanol that will be favoured, at least for the short term.

The C. D. Howe Institute in Ottawa believes the provinces rushed into this decision. According to the organization, only cellulosic ethanol can effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In another report, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also criticized the Canadian attitude on the issue. According to the report’s authors, Canada has made the wrong choice on what biofuel to use. The OECD also singles out cellulosic ethanol as the one with any true future.

With its new factory that will produce biofuels from biomass and forest waste, Enerkem offers Canadians a different solution. The primary material used in production will not have the same disastrous effect as using corn for ethanol has.

Of course, this is not the only possible solution. However, the project underway in Westbury deserves some serious consideration by government and the scientific community. If Enerkem can demonstrate the feasibility and profitability of the process and materials used, this undertaking could become a model for similar projects around the world.


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