Could Renewable Natural Gas Be the Next Big Thing in Green Energy?

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Written by Jonathan Mingle, Freelance Journalist and republished with permission of Yale Environment 360

In the next few weeks, construction crews will begin building an anaerobic digester on the Goodrich Family Farm in western Vermont that will transform cow manure and locally sourced food waste into renewable natural gas (RNG), to be sent via pipeline to nearby Middlebury College and other customers willing to pay a premium for low-carbon energy.

For the developer, Vanguard Renewables, the project represents both a departure and a strategic bet. The firm already owns and operates five farm-based biogas systems in Massachusetts; each generates electricity on site that is sent to the grid and sold under the state’s net-metering law. The Vermont project, however, is Vanguard’s first foray into producing RNG — biogas that is refined, injected into natural gas pipelines as nearly pure methane, and then burned to make electricity, heat homes, or fuel vehicles.

“Producing RNG for pipeline injection and vehicle fueling is the evolution of where everything is going” in the biogas sector, says John Hanselman, Vanguard’s CEO.

Biogas has been around for a long time in the United States, mainly in the form of rudimentary systems that either capture methane from landfills and sewage treatment plants and use it to produce small amounts of electricity, or aging digesters at dairy operations that might power a local farm and send some surplus power to the grid. But those are fast becoming outdated and out-produced by a new wave of large-scale renewable natural gas projects that are springing up around the country. These ventures are tapping into heretofore unexploited sources of energy: some are capturing the vast amounts of methane generated by manure from some of the 2,300 hog farms that dot eastern North Carolina; some are building biodigesters to turn clusters of large California dairy farms into energy hubs; and some are seeking to divert food waste from landfills and transform it into vehicle and heating fuels.

Biogas systems could produce enough renewable energy to power 3 million homes in the U.S.

Renewable natural gas is reaching a tipping point for several reasons: An increasing number of third-party operators like Vanguard are relieving farmers and landfills of the burden of running their own energy systems and are introducing more sophisticated technologies to capture methane and pump it directly into pipelines. Some states, including California, are passing laws requiring the development of renewable natural gas. And utilities across the country are starting to support these new initiatives, as evidenced by the new partnership between Dominion Energy and Smithfield Farms — the world’s largest pork producer — to develop new hog waste biogas projects. For proponents, the ultimate goal is to replace a significant portion of the fossil-derived natural gas streaming through U.S. pipelines with pure methane generated by human garbage and animal and agricultural waste.

“If you can recover energy before sending what remains back to the soil, that’s a great thing,” said Nora Goldstein, the longtime editor of BioCycle Magazine, which has covered the organics recycling and anaerobic digestion industries for decades. “You look at all those benefits and say, ‘Why aren’t more people doing this?’ The key is you need to do it correctly.”

The untapped potential — especially of the billions of gallons of animal manure and millions of tons of food waste generated each year in the U.S. — is immense. According to a 2014 “Biogas Opportunities Roadmap” report produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy, the U.S. could support at least 13,000 biogas facilities, fed by manure, landfill gas, and biosolids from sewage treatment plants. Those new systems could produce 654 billion cubic feet of biogas per year — enough renewable energy to power 3 million homes. And a study by the World Resources Institute estimated that the 50 million tons of organic waste sent to landfills or incinerated every year in the U.S has the energy content of 6 billion gallons of diesel fuel, 15 percent of all diesel consumed by heavy-duty trucks and buses.

A truck delivers food waste to an anaerobic digester at a Massachusetts farm. VANGUARD RENEWABLES

Experts say that the growing utilization of biogas could help lower greenhouse gas emissions from some of the toughest sectors to decarbonize — transportation, industry, and heating buildings — even as it reduces heat-trapping methane emissions, keeps organic waste out of landfills, and prevents manure runoff into rivers and water supplies. Through anaerobic digestion, biogas can be made from any organic material — food scraps, agricultural residues, even the sludge left over from brewing beer. These materials are fed as a slurry into tanks where microbes feast on them in the absence of oxygen, destroying pathogens, producing methane and other gases, and leaving a nutrient-rich fertilizer as a byproduct.

In the field of renewable natural gas, the U.S. is playing catch up with Europe, which has more than 17,400 biogas plants and accounts for two-thirds of the world’s 15 gigawatts of biogas electricity capacity. Denmark alone, a country of 5.8 million people, has more than 160 biogas systems. For a period last summer, 18 percent of the gas consumed in Denmark came from RNG produced by its anaerobic digesters. Flush with their success, Danish bioenergy firms estimate it will be feasible to fully replace the country’s natural gas with renewable natural gas within 20 years.

The former manager of the EPA’s anaerobic digestion programs, Chris Voell, was so impressed with Denmark’s biogas operations — which are highly engineered to digest a mix of household food scraps, residuals from food processing businesses, and livestock manure — that he now works for the Danish Trade Council to introduce Danish digester technology and business models to the U.S market.

As with most climate initiatives, California is leading biogas efforts in the U.S. The state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) — which provides incentives for fuel producers to increase the amount of low-carbon or renewable fuels they supply and sell — is a key component of the state’s ambitious climate plan and has catalyzed the rapid growth of a new, lucrative market for RNG as a vehicle fuel.

A growing crop of specialized firms builds, owns, and operates anaerobic digesters in the U.S.

Companies like Maas Energy Works and California Bioenergy have responded to these incentives by installing digesters at California’s dairy farms at a rapid clip. Maas has built 17 so far, with 12 more under construction and 32 others in development, according to its website. Both companies are racing to take advantage of valuable LCFS incentives.

And both are among a growing crop of specialized, investor-backed firms that build, own, and operate anaerobic digesters in the U.S. “With every day the industry is gaining more credibility,” Voell says. “We’re seeing more professional third-party companies. And in order to see this scale, it takes those professionals to come in and build 10, 20, 50 projects, and access a lot of equity investors. They want a portfolio of projects to invest in, not just one.”

In North Carolina, the abundant feedstock is hog manure. And the latest entrant in the RNG race is Smithfield, the world’s biggest grower of hogs. North Carolina is the second-largest pork-producing state (after Iowa). Each day, more than 2,000 of its hog farms flush manure from 9 million pigs into vast lagoons, which emit equally vast quantities of methane. Ninety percent of those farms are contract growers for Smithfield.

Late last year, Smithfield launched a joint venture, Align RNG, with a Virginia-based utility, Dominion Energy, to invest $250 million in covering lagoons and installing anaerobic digesters at nearly all of its hog finishing farms in North Carolina, Utah, and Missouri over the next 10 years. Construction is already underway on four projects that will produce enough RNG to power 14,000 homes and businesses.

A covered lagoon manure digester on Van Warmerdam Dairy in Galt, California. MAAS ENERGY WORKS

These systems will all be modeled on Optima KV, a biogas project in Kenansville, North Carolina, in the heart of hog country. Last year, Optima KV became the first project in the state to produce and inject RNG into an existing natural gas pipeline.

The factors that made Optima KV possible — along with the waste from 60,000 pigs on five nearby farms, and a centralized system to clean and upgrade the gas — include a state renewable energy portfolio standard law signed in 2007. That law contained a requirement that utilities source at least 0.2 percent of their electricity from swine and poultry waste by 2020. That mandate helped push Duke Energy, one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., to sign a 15-year agreement to purchase 80,000 million BTUs of RNG from Optima KV. That biogas will directly displace the use of fossil natural gas and generate 11,000 megawatt-hours of power in two of Duke’s power plants.

Vanguard’s new operation in Vermont represents an alternative model for scaling up RNG production. The company’s digesters are more complex and expensive — engineered to produce a consistent output of gas even as feedstocks and other conditions change — than the systems being built in California. The California systems basically cover huge dairy waste lagoons with plastic membranes and then extract, refine, and pipe the gas to customers.

“We take a more high-tech approach primarily because we need to produce a lot more gas from a much smaller footprint,” Hanselman says. “We don’t have the luxury of a 10,000-cow dairy.”

RNG has flourished in Europe because of generous subsidy programs that are lacking in the U.S.

Along with the daily stream of 100 tons of manure from the Goodrich farm’s 900 cows, and 165 tons of food waste, a number of factors have come together to make Vanguard’s Vermont project possible. In Middlebury College, Vanguard found a large customer eager to slash its carbon footprint. A new law about to take effect in Vermont will ban food waste from landfills starting in 2020, forcing grocery stores and food processors to find new places to send their waste.

And Goodrich Farm will get free heat, monthly lease payments for hosting the system, and bedding for its cows from the leftover digested solids — cost savings that can offer a lifeline for dairy farmers in a period of disastrously low milk prices.

Hanselman, Vanguard’s CEO, says that a key element to expanding RNG is taking the burden of running the system off of farmers. Hanselman encountered many irate farmers who had negative experiences with a previous generation of digesters that had been sold to them as a low-maintenance, low-cost solution to their nutrient management problems. In fact, digesters are finicky machines, sensitive to changes in temperature and the variability of organic material in feedstocks. Says Hanselman, “We tell our farmers, ‘Your job is to make milk, healthy cows, and take care of your fields and soils. Let us run these machines.’”

RNG has flourished in Europe in part because of generous subsidy programs; such comprehensive policies are lacking on the federal level in the U.S., which has a chaotic patchwork of regional and state markets, utilities, incentives, and policies. But Hanselman and others foresee that in the next several years, more states will mandate renewable natural gas production, further strengthening the fledgling biogas market.

“It feels extremely similar to solar,” says Hanselman, who used to run a solar company. “We are in the early days of RNG. Everyone will be running from program to program trying to figure out which states are beneficial, and how to best get RNG into the marketplace.”

Market forces alone, however, won’t be enough to usher in a biogas revolution. The single policy that could supercharge the growth of biogas and RNG in the U.S., most industry observers and insiders agree, is a federally legislated price on carbon. But given that a carbon tax or comprehensive climate bill aren’t likely to emerge any time soon under the current administration, Hanselman says the next best thing the federal government could do is reinstate the investment tax credit for digester systems, which lapsed in 2016.

Despite these challenges, Voell thinks there is now enough momentum to see biogas finally gain widespread traction as a renewable energy source in the U.S.

“I’m more encouraged now more than ever, because I’m actually seeing some projects getting built,” he says. “The states are stepping up with policies. And we’re seeing a revolution now where gas utilities are coming on board. Utilities wield a lot of power. If they decide RNG is something they’d like to see more of, then we’ll start to see the needle move more on the policy front.”

This article has been republished with the permission of Yale E360. It was originally published at Yale E360.


About the Author

Jonathan Mingle is a freelance journalist who focuses on the environment, climate, and development issues. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Boston Globe, and other publications. He lives in Vermont

HSBC Canada launches Green Finance products to support Canadian businesses

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HSBC Bank Canada is supporting Canadian companies to meet their environmental and sustainability goals with the launch of new Green Finance products, the first of their kind in Canada aligned to the Loan Market Association’s Green Loan Principles.

The new range – available for businesses of all sizes from small to medium enterprises (SMEs) through to large corporates – includes term loans, commercial mortgages and leasing products.

Linda Seymour, Head of Commercial Banking at HSBC Bank Canada, said: “As companies look to become more sustainable, they are investing in green projects and activities. We can continue to support their aspirations through our Green Finance products, which support businesses as they pursue sustainable and environmentally-focused activities.”

HSBC’s latest Navigator survey reveals that 95% of Canadian businesses are feeling the pressure to be more sustainable. Their top motivations in implementing sustainability practices are to grow sales (29%), improve their employer brand (24%) or improve transparency and traceability of their products (22%).ii

The Green Finance range includes:

Term Loans
The minimum Green Loan starts at $500,000, enabling a broad range of companies to access finance to support sustainability projects.

Commercial Mortgages
Access loans for purchasing new property, as well as refinancing or making sustainability improvements to existing buildings.

Leasing
Leasing allows companies to use their working capital to keep their business running, instead of financing long-term green assets.

A green loan allows customers to showcase their green credentials to stakeholders by demonstrating that a portion of their funding is ring-fenced for green activities. Green credentials are becoming increasingly important for businesses providing goods or services to large enterprise customers, as these organizations need to demonstrate their supply chain’s sustainability credentials, either to employees or investors.

Targray, a major international provider of innovative materials for photovoltaic manufacturers – and a long-time HSBC Canada customer – is the type of company that might benefit from HSBC’s Green Finance products. CFO Michel Tardif, said: “Targray is focused on supporting the growth and sustainability of novel energy industries through collaboration, innovation and value creation. To do that, we need partners who understand how to financially support companies in their sustainability efforts. We are glad to be working collaboratively with HSBC to create new solutions that fuel the world’s transition towards sustainable energy. Their green loan offering is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Linda Seymour added: “Businesses have asked for products that are aligned to their sustainability goals, and we are confident this suite of Green Finance products will support them.”

HSBC Bank Canada has aligned its Green Finance offering to the Loan Market Association’s Green Loan Principles – a set of market standards and guidelines providing a consistent methodology for use across the wholesale green loan market. This initiative forms part of HSBC’s global commitment to provide $100 billion in sustainable financing and investment by 2025.

Eligible activities include:

  • Renewable energy, including storage and smart grids;
  • Pollution prevention and control, including reduction of air emissions and greenhouse gas control;
  • Clean transportation;
  • Climate change adaptation;
  • Sustainable water and wastewater management;
  • Sustainable management of living and natural resources and land use;
  • Waste prevention, reduction, recycling; waste to energy; products from waste.

HSBC Bank Canada
HSBC Bank Canada, a subsidiary of HSBC Holdings plc, is the leading international bank in the country. We help companies and individuals across Canada to do business and manage their finances internationally through three global business lines: Commercial Banking, Global Banking and Markets, and Retail Banking and Wealth Management.

Ontario: Changes to Biogas Rules for Farms to Increase Economic Opportunity in Renewable Natural Gas Sector

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The Government of Ontario recently launched consultations to identify potential changes that would allow farmers to expand the emerging renewable natural gas market in Ontario and make the province a North American leader in the biogas sector. The consultations will focus on changes designed to reduce red tape and grow untapped economic opportunities for on-farm biogas operations.

“Today we are launching consultations designed to unlock the economic potential of the biogas industry,” said Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “These consultations will focus on identifying potential changes that would enable the biogas sector to access new markets for renewable natural gas through red tape reduction. We want these consultations to pinpoint potential changes that could enable Ontario’s $35 million dollar-a-year biogas sector to grow by up to 50 per cent over the next five years.”

Consultations will look at opportunities to enable biogas upgrading to produce renewable natural gas on-farm, ways to streamline approvals, and requirements for off-farm and agricultural feedstocks.

These consultations could lead to potential changes that would also help Ontario food processors, providing an alternative to landfill disposal that could potentially save the sector millions of dollars while encouraging the recycling of nutrients to reduce greenhouse gases. The government will encourage the return of organic materials to agricultural land to build soil health and fertility for crop production.

These potential changes would add to the more than 80 proposed actions in the Better for People, Smarter for Business Act that would streamline requirements and eliminate unnecessary regulations for businesses in Ontario.

Public Input

Planned consultations on the proposal will focus on reducing red tape in regulations for anaerobic digesters in order to grow untapped economic opportunities for on-farm biogas operations. The consultations will also look at opportunities to enable biogas upgrading to produce renewable natural gas on-farm, ways to streamline approvals, and requirements for off-farm and agricultural feedstocks. Comments on the proposal can be directed to nmaconsultation@ontario.ca.

Pyrowave to team up with Loblaws to further develop its plastics microwave recycling technology

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Pyrowave, a Quebec-based plastics microwave recycling start-up, was recently announced as one of three winners in the Community of Leaders Innovating for Corporations (C.L.I.C.) challenge. As a winner, the company will be mentored by Galen Weston, Executive Chairman of
the Loblaw grocery chain.

Pyrowave converts plastic waste into chemical products used to make virgin-like (monomers) plastics, in order to make 100% polystyrene recycling possible, be it foam or rigid.

The C.L.I.C. Challenge matches CEOs from leading companies with pioneering Canadian-based start-ups that offer promising technological solutions in their industries. This first edition of the Challenge was open to mature start-ups, in the process of becoming series A or in a later stage of development, and focused on key industrial sectors that form the backbone of the country’s economy: agri-food, advanced manufacturing and extractive resources.

To further accelerate their development, Pyrowave has been invited to the Business Council of Canada’s members meeting in January. It will be a unique opportunity for them to pitch their innovative solution to the leaders of over 100 of Canada’s largest corporations.

The second edition of the C.L.I.C. Challenge is already under way with a new cohort of CEOs that will expand the Community of Leaders for Innovating Corporations, and details will be revealed early 2020 at clicchallenge.ca.

Pyrowave’s patented microwave catalytic depolymerization System

Lithium Batteries – Rethink, Recycle

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Written by Zachary Gray, B.Eng.Biosci., Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering

Electricity is in, and fuel is out — The Dutch Royal Shell’s 50-year plan is in motion. Much to longtime shareholder’s chagrin, the 112-year-old global behemoth is pivoting their business model away from fossil fuels in the decades to come in favor of more sustainable forms of energy, including wind, solar, and hydrogen.

The Dutch Royal Shell transition is not limited to ethereal boardroom speak, placating the dry martini-sipping corporate climate change activists, but aligns with the tenets of the Paris Accord and emerging trends in consumer behavior: more electric vehicles and charging stations, less crude oil. Indeed Canadians with ambivalent, and often geopolitically divergent attitudes towards their energy sector are purchasing electric vehicles (“EVs”) at an accelerating pace: EV sales increased 125% from 2017 to 2018, putting an additional 100,000 on our roadways.

The problem to avoid is exchanging one environmental sin for another. There is a greater understanding among the general road-faring population that the fuel they are pumping into their cars, on the way to doing more important things with their time, combusts, adding to the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, charging one’s EV adds a degree of separation between drivers and their energy source.

Generally, driving an EV in Ontario, where 93% of the province’s energy comes from carbon-free sources, is far better for the environment than the combustion box on wheels sitting in the queue at the Shell station. Not so much in Kentucky, where 92% of the state’s energy comes from low-energy-density coal; or worse: Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, or Texas, where they burn far more to keep the lights on – or, EVs cruising along their streets. An EV’s positive environmental impact is only as good as its energy supply and battery.

Often, the EV’s greatest sin is its battery. In a study comparing Tesla’s Model S alongside a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle, the former’s manufacturing process generated 15% more greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions. Despair not, however, the same study acknowledged that a Tesla generally rack up fewer GHGs over its lifespan compared to the latter.

For context, Tesla’s position is far better than the first generation of Toyota’s hybrid vehicle, the 1997 Prius. Between mining nickel for its catalysts in Northern Ontario and the spiderweb of trans-continental shipping bringing together the car’s disparate components across Toyota’s decentralized manufacturing sites, the first Prius’s GHG emissions over the course of lifetime dwarfed those of military-grade Hummers – which, some readers may be surprised to learn, are not known for their fuel economy. Tesla’s cathode and electrolyte are its central issues.

Lithium-based Batteries

There are three components to EV’s lithium-based batteries: the anode, made from graphite; the lithium electrolyte; and cathode, often a mixture of nickel, aluminum, and manganese cobalt. Tesla’s cathodes, a combination of nickel, cobalt, and aluminum, are the main environmental culprit; the lithium is salt on the wound.

Analysts estimate that Argentia, Bolivia, and Chile hold 15% of the world’s lithium reserves. Abundance, however, is not the problem: water usage and isolation are. Clean water is scarce high in the Andes, and mining operations use immense volumes in their salt brine ponds to separate the lithium from magnesium and potassium that are also present. Lithium brine ponds now litter the famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats. While TIME magazine may celebrate the wealth potential, and the relative cleanliness of lithium mining throughout these South American countries, consumers should remain vigilant to ensure extractors are not given carte blanch over the region’s resources – besides, who gets a medal for not placing last?

Lithium Mining Operation

For some perspective, the Guangdong province in China used mining to further its economy, much like the three South American nations are doing, feeding the world’s growing appetite for electronics with its vast supply of heavy metals – perfect for batteries and processors. Now, it costs $29/kg to remediate soil in the region. Nor do few publications outside of Canada’s right-wing press celebrate the economic value that the Oil Sands mines deliver to Albertans.

There is also the social impact to consider outside of the environmental damage brought on the world’s growing appetite for electronics and the batteries that keep them charged.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the largest global producers of cobalt, a critical element in Tesla’s cathodes. There are also an estimated 35,000 child laborers working in the Congo’s cobalt mines. At $83,000 per metric tonne, the high commodity prices for this scarce metal are incentivizing the less than stable Congolese government to turn a blind eye to the increasing rate of child enslavement in their country. Meanwhile, citizens in developed nations enjoy faster charging times for their phones and better performance in their EVs, for which they can thank cobalt’s presence. 

That’s how it is: Fossil fuel reliance diminishes as society increasingly coalesces around electronics and sustainable forms of energy. Metals such as lithium and cobalt, play a critical part in the transition’s material infrastructure. However controversial, mining provides the initial access to these vital materials.  Consumers can take heart knowing that battery components, while not non-renewable, are recyclable – unlike the proceeding technology. The rare earth elements can feed a closed-loop supply chain as they enter circulation while robust recycling technologies ensure their place within it.

The importance of battery recycling

Tesla ensured that recycling as part of its battery’s supply chain. The company recycles 60% of spent cells from its cars, reuses a further 10%, and landfills the rest due to technical difficulties. They use Kinsbursky Brothers in North America and Umicore in Europe. Both of these recyclers use traditional furnace techniques called pyrometallurgy to process the spent batteries.

Four high-level events place during the pyrometallurgical process; they are:

  1. Preparing the furnace load, including the battery components and coke;
  2. Treating the off-gas, filtering the batteries’ vaporized plastic parts, before discharging to the atmosphere;
  3. Removing slag from the kiln, including aluminum, silicon, and iron;
  4. Completing the smelting process.

The resultant product is a copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel alloy, representing 40% of the batteries contents, while The treated off-gas and slag account for the remaining 60%. For reference, a Model S has 7,100 battery cells, weighing 540 kg, meaning that the heating-based approach recovers ~220 kg of valuable cathodic materials, representing approximately 80-85% of the original amount, for the industry’s growing closed-loop supply chain. 

Altogether, the pyrometallurgical recycling of lithium-ion batteries reduces GHG emissions by 70% over using new resources, further lowering the environmental impact for the next generation of EVs.

Umicore’s process can handle 7,000 metric tonnes per year, equivalent to 35,000 EV batteries. Right now, the company is focusing on better serving smaller-scale electronics and pivoting their technical model towards less-energy intensive forms of battery recycling. Fully embracing hydrometallurgical techniques, the process extracting metal ions from aqueous solutions and forming salts, is the new frontier in lithium battery recycling. One Canadian company stands out in the emerging technical group: Li-Cycle.

Li-Cycle Corporation

The Mississauga-based Li-Cycle Corporation is piloting its two-step, closed-loop recycling technology in Southern Ontario. First, the “Spoke” mechanically reduces the size of the battery’s components, leading to the “Hub,” which leverages hydrometallurgical technologies to yield high-value salts. In addition to emitting few GHGs and expending little solid waste, the company also treats and reuses its water and acid. Encouragingly, the company achieved a >90% recovery rate for critical metals during their pilot-scale operations.

Li-Cycle Technology™ is a closed loop, processing technology that recycles lithium-ion batteries. The technology recovers 80-100% of all materials found in lithium-ion batteries.

Li-Cycle’s technology minimizes energy usage and operational inputs while outperforming competitor’s return. Going forward, the company will separate the two components business units, better serving regional markets: Multiple Spokes, each processing 5,000 tonnes of used batteries per year, will supply a 15-20,000 tonne Hub. A constellation of Li-Cycle’s units would increase the availability of critical metals from other electronics, such as cell phones, for the rapidly expanding EV market.

Concluding remarks

Tesla recently announced its concern about the impending shortage of metals critical to their batteries’ chemistry. In the future, companies such as Canada’s Li-Cycle and Umicore will be able to mediate discrepancies in the EV supply chain. Used batteries languishing in the dump are harmful to the environment and damage the growing, technical infrastructure around recycling rare earth metals. Mining brings the batteries’ minerals into circulation while recycling keeps them in use.

Recycling will be an integral part of the EVs’ industrial arc as they proliferate in usage, while the energy paradigm continues to shift from fossil fuels to sustainable forms of electricity and new generations of battery technology minimize the use of precious minerals.


About the Author

Zachary Gray graduated from McMaster University with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering.  He has worked with several early-stage cleantech and agri-industrial companies since completing his studies, while remaining an active member of his community.  He is enthusiastic about topics that combine innovation, entrepreneurism, and social impact.

Who’s Making the Rules on Global Plastics?

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Written by Jonathan D. Cocker, Baker McKenzie

There is no question that dramatic changes are coming for the supply and reverse supply chain for plastics that will impact packaging, containers, and plastic products. From resins and polymer mixes to ocean plastic clean up and waste export bans and everything in between, it is difficult to not foresee a fundamental regime shift coming for the regulation of plastics globally. But just who decides on these new rules and how will disparate initiatives and goals lead to convergence on legal standards?

EU Plastics Strategy

The first place to start is, of course, the European Union. The broad-reaching 2018 strategy encompasses the landmark 2019 Single Use Plastics Directive, targeting certain commonly disposed products and includes:

  • Bans for a number of single use plastics (cutlery, straws, etc.) where non-plastic alternatives are readily available and affordable;
  • Reduction targets for food containers and cups;
  • Ambitious collection targets of up to 90%;
  • Producer payment obligations to help fund waste management and legacy clean-up costs;
  • Labelling of some plastics, indicating how to waste dispose and alerts as to the negative environmental impacts of plastics; and
  • Consumer awareness campaigns about negative impacts of plastic litter and re-use and waste management options. 

In short, it is a policy mix impacting various parts of the life-cycle. The Plastics Strategy goes further, however, and requires of all plastics:

  • Design of recyclability;
  • Creation of markets for recycled and renewable plastics;
  • Expanding and modernizing EU’s plastics sorting and recycling capacity;
  • Mandating producer-paid initiatives to curb plastic wastes;
  • A regulatory framework for plastics with biodegradable properties; and
  • Coming regulation on microplastics across a number of industries.

This relatively comprehensive set of product and supply chain requirements would apply to both inbound and outbound products, leaving little room for global plastics industry stakeholders to remain untouched by these coming standards.

Ellen MacArthur’s “New Plastics Economy”

What the Ellen MacArthur Foundation lacks in regulatory authority, it more than makes up for in ambition. The seminal publications on a “New Plastics Economy” involves macro-level systems to remake supply/reverse supply chains. Overall, it’s mission is described as follows:

  • Elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation, and new delivery models is a priority;
  • Reuse models are applied where relevant, reducing the need for single-use packaging;
  • All plastic packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable;
  • All plastic packaging is reused, recycled, or composted in practice;
  • The use of plastic is fully decoupled from the consumption of finite resources; and
  • All plastic packaging is free of hazardous chemicals, and the health, safety, and rights of all people involved are respected.

The genius of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is its multi-stakeholders industry approach, enlisting some of the largest industrials and other stakeholders from across the plastics supply and reverse supply chain to make concrete, shared undertakings, thereby establishing common terms of reference and objective standards by which supply chain parties can systematize their efforts.

They’ve gone further and fostered the growth of “Plastic Pacts” in which countries are to enlist domestic industry to make commitments which exceed EU standards. The reference terms are not, however, entirely consistent, potentially creating future challenges for international industry to adopt a single compliance legal regime where long-term investment under the MacArthur Foundation model isn’t entirely exported into law.

Alliance to End Plastic Waste

January 2019 also saw the creation of the industry-led Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which has committed an astounding $1.5 Billion over the next five years with a mandate to “bring to scale solutions that will minimize and manage plastic waste and promote solutions for used plastics by helping enable a circular economy”.

To date, the Alliance appears to be focused upon funding plastics-relevant waste management projects, principally in Asia, but their heft will, no doubt, be relevant in the overall direction of plastics policy given their petrochemical representation and their planned investments. It remains to be seen when and how they might enter the plastics product design-for-environment field.

Basel Convention

Finally, the newest major entrant in the increasingly crowded field of new plastics standards is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. In addition to the deeming of most plastic wastes as controlled by the environmental and transfer protections built into the Basel Convention effective January 1st, 2021, the May 2019 resolutions also put the organization into the forefront of plastics regulation with some notable initiatives:

  • An expert working group is to be convened to consider whether to expand the categories of plastic wastes which should be classified as “hazardous” under the Convention (many will be simply classified as “other wastes” under the May 2019 resolutions);
  • A “partnership on plastic wastes” is to be convened which will include the (state) parties to the Convention, as well as certain other stakeholders (as either parties or observers) and will:
    • Engage in pilot projects and scaling exercises;
    • Assess best practices, as well as barriers, for the prevention, minimization, and environmentally-sound management of plastic waste movements; and
    • Consider options for increasing durability, reusability, reparability and recyclability of plastics.
  • A mandate to update the current Technical Guidelines which are to be a point of reference of parties’ national and international waste management and recycling standards, including how they relate to plastics.

With these goals, the Basel Convention has gone from a virtual bystander on most plastic waste issues to an aspirant for a central role, with the backing of almost all national governments (notably absent – USA). Further, the Basel Convention has overtly called for collaboration with the United National Environment Program, giving it a further platform to push through multi-lateral action on plastics. Whether the Basel Convention lacks the industry integration to remain relevant in this dynamic market, however, remains to be seen.

Where’s the Convergence?

In looking at these four major global initiatives, what’s most staggering is that they’ve all arisen in the past year, each arguably filling a vacuum on plastics stewardship to which great public animosity was paid.

While each has a somewhat different mandate and maybe all would benefit from each pursuing their own enterprises for now, there will soon be a need for convergence on the fundamentals of future plastics rules, such as permissible plastics types, hazards eliminations, recycled content minimums, environmental attributes, such as “compostable” or “biodegradable”, design for recyclability, usage bans, and reverse supply chain integration.

Without convergent, plastics industry stakeholders won’t find the market stability necessary to make any of these initiatives successful.


About the Author

Jonathan D. Cocker heads the Firm’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of firm Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environment, health and safety matters, including product content, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, extended producer responsibilities and contaminated lands matters. He appears before both EHS tribunals and civil courts across Canada. Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on EHS matters, an active participant on EHS issues in a number of national and international industry associations and the recent author of the first edition of The Environment and Climate Change Law Review (Canada chapter) and the upcoming Encyclopedia of Environmental Law (Chemicals chapter).

Making Producers Pay – From Stewardship to Innovative EPR Programs in Canada

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Written by Mark Youden and Maya Stano, Associate Lawyers at Gowling WLG

Product and packaging waste is increasingly drawing public attention across the globe. This stems, in part, from a growing awareness of massive plastic pollution accumulation zones in our oceans, government bans of single use plastics, China’s recent import ban on scrap plastics, and news of the Philippines wanting to return Canadian “recyclables.”  In this era, governments are increasingly turning to innovative waste management and diversion policies and laws.

To date, Canada has focused on two approaches for managing products and their packaging at end-of-life: (1) extended producer responsibility or “EPR”, and (2) product stewardship programs. For the most part, these programs (which cover various categories) fall under provincial jurisdiction.    

To varying degrees, these programs shift the end-of-life waste responsibility away from governments (and tax payers) and on to producers (e.g., brand owners, manufacturers and first importers).  Depending on the program, this responsibility includes reporting and funding (at least in part) the management of the waste created by their products.  

Stewardship versus EPR

Although often used interchangeably, there are key policy differences between product stewardship and EPR programs (as well as significant corresponding financial implications for companies). Generally speaking, EPR programs place responsibility (and costs) on product producers, whereas product stewardship programs generally rely on consumer-paid environmental fees or public funds. Although the emphasis in Canada has historically been on product stewardship programs, there is a growing shift towards transforming those initiatives to full-fledged EPR programs. Such EPR programs place full responsibility for designing, operating and financing diversion programs, and accountability for the program’s environmental performance, on producers.  The concept is intended to incentivize companies to not only bear responsibility for, but actually reduce, their product waste footprint (e.g., through recyclable product and packaging innovation).

Status of EPR Programs

Provincial Level

In 2014, British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to implement an EPR system making producers fully responsible for funding and managing curbside and drop-off recycling programs for packaging and printed paper. Under the province’s Environmental Management Act and Recycling Regulation, producers must recover 75% of the paper and packaging they produce, and face fines if they don’t achieve this target.

Full EPR programs have not yet been implemented in other provinces – some provinces do require producers to pay for part of their recycling, but none outside of BC require producers to manage the actual system. At the local level, municipalities often bear the burden of dealing with urban waste generation, and towns and cities are increasingly expressing support for full EPR implementation to help cover the costs of expensive recycling programs. For example, the City of Calgary recently passed a motion to push the province into looking into EPR programs. 

Similarly, in Ontario producers are required to pay for 50% of the recycling system, but municipalities are actively calling for a full EPR model. In 2016, Ontario passed a groundbreaking bill that instituted an EPR requirement for all product categories. The bill also sought to prevent producers from discharging their liabilities to a third party, thereby making them fully responsible. These efforts culminated in the adoption of several new laws, including the Waste Diversion Transition Act, 2016 (which includes payments to municipalities to cover their costs associated with the blue box recycling program), and the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, 2016 (which led to the development of the Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario: Building the Circular Economy).

Federal Level

At the federal level, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment began taking action in the late 1990’s in regard to its waste reduction target of 50% of the product waste that is placed into the market. Since 2004, the CCME has published several reports, analyses, studies, tools and progress reports in regard to the Canada-wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility, with product packaging recognized as a priority in that plan.

International Level

EPR has a long history in Europe, where it has existed in varying forms since 1990. Sweden and Germany led the way by encouraging industries that made and sold products to be responsible for the waste stage of those products. EPR programs subsequently spread to other EU countries and beyond.

Challenges with recycling recently led to the EU’s approval of a law banning 10 types of single-use plastics by 2021 as part of its shift towards a circular economy (which aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, and recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life). Canadian federal MP Nathan Cullen has recently introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-429, the Zero Waste Packaging Act, which seeks to follow the EU lead.1 Stay tuned on the progress of those efforts as they evolve here in Canada.

The Spotlight on Product and Packaging Waste

A dispute between the Philippines and Canada has recently drawn attention on Canada’s product and packaging waste system.  In April 2019, the Philippines demanded that Canada take back shipping containers full of waste and recyclable plastics. Canada originally argued that it is not responsible for returning the waste that was shipped. This dispute, spanning over 5 years now, is complicated by obligations under international law (including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, 1992).  As threats from the Philippines President escalated in late April 2019, Canada offered to accept and pay for the return of close to 70 shipping containers.Those containers are now on their way back to Canada. 

This international dispute has placed the spotlight on the state of recycling in Canada (as many did not realize Canada ships its waste elsewhere).  This, coupled with the public criticism over the effectiveness of Canada’s recycling regime, could spark local governments to expedite implementation of waste reduction policy and full-EPR programs. 

In summary, EPR and product stewardship programs are here to stay and will increasingly impose significant requirements on product producers.  Our Gowling WLG team has extensive experience in the detailed requirements that must be followed to ensure legal compliance. Should you have any concerns or questions regarding your company’s product stewardship and EPR duties, please contact one of our knowledgeable team members.


1 https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/bill/C-429/first-reading#enH123


NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Information made available on this website in any form is for information purposes only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. You should not rely on, or take or fail to take any action based upon this information. Never disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking legal advice because of something you have read on this website. Gowling WLG professionals will be pleased to discuss resolutions to specific legal concerns you may have.

About the Authors

Mark Youden is an associate lawyer in Gowling WLG’s Vancouver office, practising in the firm’s Environmental and Indigenous Law groups. Mark is called to the bar in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario and advises a wide range of clients on all aspects of environmental, Indigenous and regulatory law issues.

Prior to studying law, Mark obtained a Master of Science focused on biophysical interactions and the fate of contaminants in terrestrial and aquatic systems. He also worked as an environmental consultant for an international engineering firm.

Mark’s scientific expertise and multidisciplinary approach to the law help him provide clients with practical solutions to complex environmental and Indigenous law matters.

Maya Stano is a Vancouver-based Gowling WLG associate lawyer who practises natural resource, environmental and Indigenous law.

Maya has a wide range of legal experience assisting individuals, companies and Indigenous Nations and other levels of governments on natural resource projects, including mining, forestry, large and small scale hydro projects, oil and gas projects, and nuclear projects. Maya provides timely and effective advice at all stages of project life, from early planning and tenure applications, through construction, operations and final closure, decommissioning and reclamation. Maya’s services cover due diligence matters, permitting (including environmental assessments), land rights (including leases and other land access and tenure agreements), regulatory compliance, and engagement and agreement negotiations between First Nations, the Crown and proponents.

Maya also assists Indigenous Nations in various government-related matters, including drafting laws and bylaws, drafting and implementing trust instruments for sustainable long-term financial management, managing land use and rights on reserve, and working with land codes and other governance matters.

Maya studied law at the University of British Columbia, graduating with a specialization in environmental and natural resource Law. After graduation, Maya clerked at the Federal Court of Canada for the Honourable Mr. Justice John A. O’Keefe. Concurrently, she completed an LLM at the University of Ottawa, focusing on the legal implications associated with lifecycle management of metals.

Maya is also a professional geological engineer and previously worked on mining projects both domestically and abroad, as well as on contaminated sites across British Columbia, and on oil and gas projects in northern Alberta.

Motor Oil Recycling: Barriers and Breakthroughs

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Written by Zachary Gray, B.Eng.Biosci., Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering

Motor oil changes are a sacrament in our car-obsessed modern life, while the mechanics working in the auto shops are their enforcers and evangelizers.  Every 5,000 to 8,000 kilometres, car owners begrudgingly schedule an oil change between busy work days and weekend errands.  

Primer of Motor Oil

During the 20-minute oil-change procedure, mechanics bleed the blackened, viscous motor oil from the bowels of the engine and replace it with pristine liquids from bright plastic packaging – eye-catching to some, but a far cry from the painted metal containers that furnish collector’s shelves.

Vintage Motor Oil Can, $31 (USD) on ebay

While the myriad of car oil brands available might suggest a wide variance in products, they differ only in the precise mixing of additives.  Motor lubricant is essentially 70-80% base oil with the remaining 20-30% consisting of supplements such as antioxidants, detergents, and viscosity enhancers, as well as rust inhibitors.

The quality of the motor oil degrades over time in a motor vehicle.  The build-up of debris blackens the oil, while the additive properties deteriorate over the driving cycle, dissipating heat and lubricating contact points between metal parts with less efficiency as time marches onward.  Water entrainment and oxidation of the base oil are also contributing factors.  

Changing one’s motor oil frequently, as the chorus drones on, ensures the longevity of the engine. One question remains as the mechanics dispense with the last of the used oil: what happens to it afterward?   Nothing much is often the answer. 

Motor Oil Re-refining

There are over 300 million registered vehicles in Canada and the United States alone, contributing to the nearly 2.5 billion gallons of motor oil disposed of annually throughout North America.  Of the almost 60% recovered, a mere 8% is recycled. The remainder feeds the 12 billion of gallons of lubricant reduced to toxic waste yearly.

Catastrophizing about the volumes quoted and their impact is not productive in and of itself.  Exploring ways to improve oil recycling figures is a better use of time.

In 2009, when the revered Scientific American explored whether motor oil could be recycled, the editors profiled Universal Lubricants (“UL”).  The Wichita-based company uses conventional refining techniques from upgrading crude oil when recovering the spent lubricant.  They essentially re-refine the used motor oil

UL processes over 45.4 million litres of used motor oil, or 28,600 barrels, per day.  In the re-refining process, used oil passes through a vacuum distillation unit which removes water from the base oil, accounting for 5-7% of the incoming volume. Next, contaminants are removed using an evaporation press.  In the final step, UL hydrotreats the decontaminated oil. 

Hydrotreating consists of applying high temperature and pressure (700 deg-F and 1,100 PSI) and enriching the carbon-backbone of the oil with hydrogen molecules in the presence of catalysts that aid in the chemical reactions. 

The final product resembles base oil, ready for lubricant merchants to add their additive concoctions and branding power.

Photo Credit: UL

Re-refining efforts, much like those by UL, accounts for only 10 percent of used oil management market.  The majority of used motor oil is either burned or dumped, depending on the jurisdiction and level of enforcement.  The emergence of re-refining technologies has done little in altering the outcome for spent motor oil — but why?

Barriers to Recycling

There are two main barriers to a broader adaptation of re-refining used motor oil.  The first is the capital expense in building and operating a facility on UL’s scale.  Investors should expect a final bill of tens of millions of dollars in replicating UL’s plant in Canada.  Recovering their investment is another issue: refineries derive their profits either from large volumes, amplifying small gains per unit of measurement, or upgrading cheaper base stocks.  With respect to the latter point, one could argue that the used motor oil would be a commodity instead of merely a waste product with broader market adaptation.  Such a classification diminishes the facility’s economic viability.

The second barrier to re-refining is the plant’s environmental impact.  A re-refiner has a similar environmental impact as an oil refinery.  To understand how difficult it is to get environmental approval for an oil refinery, one need to realize that the newest oil refinery in Canada is over 30 years old.

Canadian Innovation

Besides re-refining, there are innovative and arguably more feasible solutions for recycling motor oil in development.  The Ottawa-based MemPore Environmental Technologies Inc. (“MemPore”) is one such example, scaling their locally-minded, membrane-based process.

MemPore’s solution is this: the used motor oil is kept in 5,000-gallon settling tanks and periodically shipped to their regionally-based operation.  The central locations reduce the amount of pollution from transporting oil over longer distances and eases logistical challenges.  After removing contaminants during the pretreatment process, consisting of a filter, centrifuge, and flash evaporators, the oil is sent to the membrane unit.  Once polished to a quality consistent with a regular base oil, lubricant mixers take the final product and infuse it with their additives.

Cement kilns take the waste sludge separated by the membrane. The 15 metric tonnes, or 148 barrels, per day system operates at low temperatures and pressures, thus reducing its running costs and environmental impact.

Mempore Used Oil Recycling System

Alastair Samson, MemPore’s CEO, eloquently summarizes the company’s position and value proposition:

“The MemPore System can, for the first time, recover and recycle this base oil with 71% reduction in pollution, from localized systems, using low energy, and at low capital and operating cost. This is an important contribution to the clean technology movement and the preservation of earth’s natural resources.”

MemPore’s community-centric and scalable solution, with the potential for handsome profit margins, offers a tangible solution to the endemic squandering of used motor oil.  They also provide the mechanics a new hymn during drivers’ reluctant excursion to the auto body shop.

Windsor-Essex Recycling Success Story

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The Essex-Windsor Solid Waste Authority (EWSWA) is one of the few municipalities in North America that has had minimal impact from the recycled material bans issued in Asia. The secret to its success is due to dealing exclusively with North American processors.

The EWSWA is the governmental agency charged with the responsibility of providing an integrated solid waste management system for the County of Essex and the City of Windsor in Ontario. Windsor is directly across the Detroit River from the City of Detroit. The City of Windsor and County of Essex has a combined population of 393,000.

The Authority generates revenue through the sale of recyclable materials. The more materials recycled – the more revenue there is to offset the waste management system costs.

In an interview with the CBC, Cathy Copot-Nepsy, the EWSWA manager of waste diversion, stated, “EWSWA has been working strategically for years to get established in the domestic market. [This] has allowed us to be one step ahead of all the other recycling plants who have been sending it overseas.”

In the CBC interview, Ms. Copot-Nepsy did admit the EWSWA was not entirely insulated from the Asian ban on recyclables. With more North American municipalities looking for local processors of recyclables, an over saturated domestic market has meant that EWSWA had to reduce the contaminants in the recyclables it sold to processors.

The residential recycling program in Essex Windsor is two stream – container materials and paper materials. Every recycling truck has two compartments (one for containers and one for paper). The materials are delivered to two different facilities (one building for containers and another building for paper).

EWSWA is expanding it public education program to reduce contamination of the recyclables that are received at the material recycling facilities (MRFs). It has also added an optical sorter at its fibre plant.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/municipalities-recycling-windsor-step-1.5092863

Innovative company fueling greener steel from Wood Waste

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Ontario-based CHAR Technologies is developing cost-effective and efficient alternative fuels that help manufacturers drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), all while adding value to otherwise wasted resources. Andrew White is CEO of CHAR Technologies Ltd., an innovative Toronto-based cleantech company specializing in biocarbon fuel development and provides custom equipment for industrial air and water treatment, environmental management services, site investigation and remediation and resource efficiency.

Mr. White began developing their first product, SulfaCHAR, while he was a grad student at the University of Toronto (U of T). SulfaCHAR is a patented form of activated biochar that removes hydrogen sulfide from renewable natural gas the same way a Brita® water filter removes contaminants from tap water, leaving behind a clean biogas that can be used for multiple energy applications.

The feedstock used in the production of SulfaCHAR is anaerobic digestate and/or compost.  Production of SulfaCHAR is achieved by pyrolysis under patented conditions that include specific hold times, temperatures, and conditions.  Currently, there is a SulfaCHAR production facility co-located at the Stormfisher Environmental biogas facility in London, Ontario.

CHAR Technologies’ next challenge is to develop a product it calls CleanFyre, a solid biofuel intended to replace traditional coal. On a fundamental level, CleanFyre is produced through pyrolysis, the same process that has been used to turn wood into charcoal since ancient times. “In pyrolysis, you have a bio-based material that you heat up in the absence of oxygen,” explains Devon Barry, Char Technologies’ Biocarbon Manager. “Since there is no oxygen, the organic material does not combust but instead the chemical compounds that make up the material decompose into combustible gases and charcoal.”

As we all know, burning coal proliferates GHGs, and unfortunately, a commercially viable solution that produces high enough energy levels to replace coal in many manufacturing processes, such as iron making, doesn’t exist yet. However, CHAR Technologies believes it can offer a solution to address the need for a high carbon, low ash coal replacement as an energy and reactant source.

The feedstock in the production of Cleanfyre is currently clean wood and waste wood. Other biomass materials are also being testing. The use of wood and biomass in the production the CleanFyre is considered carbon neutral as the source material is renewable.

ArcelorMittal Dofasco is Canada’s largest flat roll steel producer based in Hamilton, Ontario. In 2017, the steelmaker approached one of Ontario’s regional innovation centres, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), looking for a cost-effective alternative fuel for their blast furnaces that would reduce GHGs.

Andrew White, CEO, CHAR Technologies

“There was nothing that could generate the high levels of carbon and energy needed for steel production,” says White, who has now been meeting with ArcelorMittal Dofasco for 18 months. CHAR Technologies is piloting their CleanFyre energy fuel product through this Ontario-based collaboration, with an eye on opening up a market estimated at $340 million in Ontario alone.

ArcelorMittal Dofasco has active plans towards an initial 20 tonne trial of CleanFyre in their blast furnaces, with the potential to scale-up once they confirm the fuel’s effectiveness. The major advantage of CHAR Technologies’ solution is ‘simplicity,’ says White. “There are no major modifications required for the iron making process; we’re striving towards a ‘drop-in’ solid biofuel.”

Ongoing research at the University of Toronto will be key to CleanFyre’s success. “We are working with researchers at the University of Toronto on some very innovative ways to drastically reduce the ash content, which will allow us to expand our feed stocks to low value ‘wastes’ that have valuable low GHG carbon that’s otherwise inaccessible.”

This article is an edited version from the one posted on the InvestOntario website.