For more than 20 years, innovators have been laying the groundwork for an alternative energy industry that is fast becoming a necessity due to increasing environmental and political pressures. Although some of these companies have been unable to withstand the current economic downturn, others are poised to play a pivotal role in restructuring and reviving the economy.
This is especially true in the U.S. where President Barak Obama has made the development of domestic sources of alternative energy into a priority because, as he said in his inaugural address, “each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.” A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that many who analyze, invest and work in the American alternative energy sector are predicting significant growth as a result of the Obama administration. According to this article, “some venture capitalists think clean technology is the next big thing – the innovation that will drive the economy, much as internet related ventures did a decade ago.”
Here in Canada, leaders at both the federal and provincial levels have demonstrated their commitment to alternative energy by implementing renewable fuel standards. Sources within the federal government have indicated that the Harper government will propose to the President that our two countries harmonize their goals for using biofuels such as ethanol in an effort to curb our dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While it takes strong leadership to bring about change, these goals would be impossible to meet if it were not for the innovators whose foresight and ingenuity have created a domestic biofuels industry that also provides Canadians with skilled jobs and economic stimulus.
One such company is Vaperma, a Quebec-based enterprise that has been developing technology to enhance the energy efficiency of ethanol production since 2003. Vaperma has partnered with GreenField’s Chatham and Tiverton plants to test a system of membranes that separate water and ethanol molecules within a matter of seconds during the de-watering stage. Not only does this ground-breaking technology use 40-60 per cent less energy, it has also created 65 skilled jobs on the south shore of Quebec City. In addition, Vaperma’s membrane will make it easier to produce cellulosic ethanol from waste feedstocks on a commercial scale by helping to lower production costs.
Enerkem is another Quebec-based company that has been working since 2003 on technology that is advancing the production of next generation biofuels from waste feedstocks – in this case municipal waste and end-of-life electricity poles – on a commercial scale. Enerkem has partnered with GreenField to construct a gasification plant that will turn 100,000 dry tonnes of municipal sorted waste from the city of Edmonton into 40, 000, 000 litres of biofuels each year. This is the world’s first agreement between a large urban centre and an ethanol producer. Enerkem’s ethanol gasification technology not only creates good jobs and clean fuel, it also makes waste management practices both economical and sustainable.
For the past 20 years, GreenField’s Research, Engineering and Technology group has been experimenting with ways to increase ethanol yields and production efficiency. Past projects have included genetically modifying industrial yeast and investigating new enzyme technologies. GreenField’s Centre of Excellence lab facility currently houses experiments aimed at commercializing the biochemical production of cellulosic ethanol from feedstocks such as corn cobs, corn residues and selected forms of wood pulp. These advances would give Canadians new sources of renewable fuel and could provide farmers with a market for agricultural waste such as corn cobs.
So as we celebrate leaders like Barak Obama who make change happen, we must not forget to acknowledge the individuals whose tireless innovation and foresight make change possible.