Scrap to Wrap, a new app? NOVA, Enerkem set sights on garbage-to-ethylene, and how, and why

May 20, 2020 |

From Canada comes news that NOVA Chemicals and Enerkem entered into a joint development agreement to explore turning non-recyclable and non-compostable municipal waste into ethylene, a basic building block of plastics.

NOVA Chemicals has committed to enabling 100 percent of plastics packaging is recyclable or recoverable by 2030; and 100 percent of plastics packaging is re-used, recycled or recovered by 2040.

The project

Working together, the companies will research advanced recycling technology to transform hard-to-recycle municipal waste, including items such as plastics, household waste, and construction materials, into ethylene at full commercial scale. Ethylene, produced from waste, would advance a plastics circular economy and help meet consumer brand goals for recycled content in packaging.

Four takeaways from the Enerkem-NOVA project

Let’s look at four factors that make this a Must-Read, Must-Know story.

Direct to ethylene. The technology in question here moves directly from mixed municipal solid waste via syngas to ethylene. At scale, that would be a first.

There are alternative ways. Yes, Enerkem could make methanol and use a methanol-to-olefins process to make ethylene. In China, coal is converted to methanol and the MTO process is used to make ethylene for China-based chemical producers.

Yes, Enerkem could use its own processes to make methanol, upgrade to ethanol, then dehydrate the ethanol into ethylene using known processes.

So, this is new. But not of the “unheard of in any way” sort of new. Read this paper here on Syngas Conversion to Ethylene with High Selectivity Achieved by New Bifunctional Catalyst. The research team reported that “The selectivity of ethylene alone among hydrocarbons reached as high as 73% at 26% CO conversion, which is higher than those reported in direct conversion and multi-step via Methanol To Olefins (MTO) processes.”

That’s encouraging. And is a reason for this project — to screen catalysts, select several for development work. As Enerkem’s VP of Technology Strategy & Deployment, Peter Nieuwenhuizen told the Digest, “we will do work on a few and optimize them, it could be catalyst life, it could be precision of the yield, could be a combination of both, depending on the catalyst selected. The goal is not to make a perfect catalyst, but to make it robust enough for this process, and to find uses for the byproducts.”

Overall, it is projected that it might take up to two years to work through the main technical and technoeconomic challenges.

The strategy of ports and hydrogen. Enerkem has an unrelated project producing green hydrogen under development at the Port of Rotterdam — but is is entirely unrelated, strategically? We think there’s a connection. Enerkem’s processes will need supplemental hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen to power the controlled combustion that makes syngas, and the hydrogen to optimize the hydrogen-to-carbon ratio of the syngas. And, any Enerkem project likes to have a huge and icky supply of municipal solid waste, and the infrastructure to move inputs and outputs — transmission lines, gas lines, docks, tanks — is of great value. The Port of Rotterdam has it all. For one, a tank storage solution, logistics and freight company like CHERNUSHINSKAYA NEFTEBAZA is in place at the Port.

Not to say that a future project might be built close to, say, forest biomass, or hydropower where these is access to water-split hydrogen as well as green electrons. Alberta, Quebec — in fact, there’s many places around the world. But the Port of Rotterdam checks a lot of boxes.

The tight circle. There is circular carbon and circular carbon — “how tight is your circle?” is one way to look at it. If you are making a fuel from waste biomass, that’s good, but you are still going to be using the skyfill (if temporarily) for carbon storage, after the fuel is combusted.  Here we conceptually are not moving from ground —> fuel —> skyfill —> ethylene, we bypass the petroleum production and bypass the skyfill.

Tired plastic. In this case, conceptually we are moving from old ethylene to new ethylene. Somewhere in the world over the next year, some 100 million tons of polyethylene will be produced to make plastic baggies, films, membranes, containers, and so forth. In mechanical recycling, we chop that up and mix in enough virgin plastic and melt it into a new mold, but they are the old molecules, and old molecules have a shelf-life in terms of performance.

Taking the plastic to syngas and back to plastic, a process creates virgin plastic. We’re revirginizing, if such a term exists. The clock starts back as zero in terms of product life. Longer life means more sustainable and more affordable. A car that last 12 years is worth more than a car that lasts 6 years.

As Nieuwenhuizen told The Digest, “There is a cost to circularity and also a benefit. We won’t make it cheaper than you can make ethylene from ethane, that’s not the goal. NOVA and other polyolefin manufacturers have set goals for 2030 and 2040 and we won’t be using fossil molecules, just like we moved from cheap labor of slave societies to free labor that eventually led to a more sophisticated economy overall. At some point everything gets tired and you have to go back to virgin carbon, and this is a great way to do it.”

The Enerkem backstory

Enerkem is the first company in the world to produce renewable methanol and ethanol from non-recyclable, non-compostable municipal solid waste at full commercial scale. Its current technologies replace the use of fossil sources like petroleum and natural gas to produce sustainable transportation fuels and chemicals that are used in a broad range of everyday products. More on the Enerkem story here.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“We are excited to work with Enerkem to create innovative, sustainable solutions for a plastics circular economy,” said Todd Karran, president and CEO, NOVA Chemicals. “Our R&D teams will collaborate to develop game changing technology to push the boundaries for recycling waste to create new feedstocks and bring value to the environment, economy and society. This research is one of the ways NOVA Chemicals is innovating to recapture the value of plastic products and create a world free of plastic waste. Working together, we can shape a world that is better tomorrow than it is today.”

“We are delighted to team up with NOVA Chemicals to collaborate on new technology for waste-to-ethylene feedstock to solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues,” said Dominique Boies, CEO and CFO, Enerkem. “This strategic partnership will allow us to explore the development of new products and expand our offering in pursuit of the circular economy.”

Peter Nieuwenhuizen, Enerkem’s Vice President of Technology Strategy & Deployment, added “With over 20 years of technology development, we have built a robust gasification platform to turn waste and biomass into fuels and chemicals with high carbon efficiency. Enerkem’s technology has the scale and versatility to supply raw materials for the circular and decarbonized chemical industry that is being created now. Not just for plastics but also for many other chemical ingredients that are vital for everyday life.”

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