Energy goes organic

Proposed Lacombe processing facility would be a technology first for Alberta

A $32-million biorefinery slated for construction in Lacombe, Alta., is expected to turn tonnes of waste into energy and fertilizer, bringing economic, environmental and health benefits to the province.

The Lacombe Biorefinery project will be the first facility of its kind in Canada. It will serve as an international demonstration and research centre to showcase a patented thermal hydrolysis process developed by Biosphere Technologies Inc.

Construction is expected to begin in 2012 with production scheduled to begin in 2013.

The process takes waste like animal carcasses, animal by-products and other commercial and industrial organic waste materials and turns it into renewable electricity, heat, dry fertilizer, liquid fertilizer and inedible tallow.

"Within about 40 minutes, the thermal hydrolysis process can take organic material and destroy pathogenic agents while retaining all the nutrients," says Chris Thrall, president of BioRefinex Canada Inc., the company building the project and commercializing the technology.

Waste is ground and put into high-pressure thermal hydrolysis reactors. It comes out of the reactors in liquefied form, simply because organic materials have a large percentage of water. The output then goes through centrifuges that separate it into nutrient fractions, including fatty acids, amino acids and minerals. Some of this material can be used to make fertilizer, which returns the nutrients to the soil, and some is used as feedstock for biogas production.

The biogas will be produced in anaerobic digesters, which are large vessels that hold water and solid organic material in an anaerobic, or oxygen-less, state.

"The biogas can then be cleaned up and put into the gas pipeline system for natural gas, or you can run it through a cogeneration unit and create electricity and heat," Thrall says. The Lacombe Biorefinery project will be doing the latter.

Environmentally speaking, the thermal hydrolysis process is an attractive alternative to sending waste to a landfill or incinerator. It's estimated that the biorefinery will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 350,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent over 10 years, a goal that has earned the project $10 million in funding from Alberta's Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation.

The thermal hydrolysis process also has international certification for destroying all disease agents and is a safe way to dispose of animal carcasses infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

"We get rid of food waste because people are worried about diseases," says Erick Schmidt, president of Biosphere Technologies and inventor of the process. "At the biorefinery, we can take that material, process it, get rid of the diseases and odour, and keep and save all the nutrients."

Schmidt has been working on bringing his process to market for more than a decade. After years of testing, there is now worldwide interest, generating the need for a showcase facility that proves the technology can work on a commercial scale.

The facility will be located on a 13-acre site in Lacombe's Wolf Creek Industrial Park. Lacombe is one of the largest livestock regions in the country, making it an ideal place for a large-scale commercial operation. BioRefinex plans to process about 55,000 tonnes of material a year.

Although the facility is still in the design stage, it is expected to include a processing area, office and lab space, and small demonstration greenhouses along the front to show the results of various fertilizers. BioRefinex had to obtain certification from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and must meet a number of detailed CFIA design requirements.

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