Innovator Profiles

Esteban Chornet

Esteban Chornet, Enerkem

“A problem is the beginning of an opportunity,” is how Professor Esteban Chornet describes engineering; this also serves to sum up the reasons for his success.

After decades of studying, teaching, and working in chemical and biochemical engineering research, Professor Chornet now serves as the Chief Technology Officer for Enerkem, a firm specializing in converting municipal waste to fuel and chemicals.

Twelve years after being founded, Enerkem is now operating two pilot plants in Quebec and Alberta, and a demonstration plant in Quebec. A commercial plant is under construction in Edmonton, and other facilities are in development in Quebec and Mississippi. This successful Canadian enterprise has its roots in the 1940s, on the other side of the Atlantic.

“I was born in 1942 in Spain, I am a Catalan and I lived in difficult times: we had little” begins Chornet. He explains how Spain was under an international blockade,  with very little to work with. However this was just one more problem to be solved and an opportunity to be gained; “my father had a sawmill, and he and other entrepreneurs who had similar and other types of industrial plants, powered their industries via gasification.” This involves heating organic material in the presence of reduced amounts of oxygen without achieving combustion, resulting in a conversion of the material into syngas, a mixture made up of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and some hydrocarbons. This resulting syngas can be used as a fuel, and as long as the organic material is biomass, such as wood, the process can be considered carbon neutral and renewable. “They had gasifiers that I call embryonary by today’s engineering standards, but they worked. They were able to couple the gas with an engine and a generator, creating electricity for the sawmill and the families of the workers who use to live around the mill in those times.”

“As I was growing up, I was genuinely curious about this. Later in my life, and in conversations with my father, I understood that the generation of the 40s was a generation of very little, and they had to use their brains, their ability and their entrepreneurship to transform ideas into realizations to survive and then prosper. This shaped my life, I said I wanted to be an engineer.”

Engineering is, at its heart, all about innovation and problem solving. Having lived through some of humanity’s most significant scientific and technological advances, I ask what has impressed Professor Chornet the most. “I have seen through my life a number of innovative developments in energy. I think the most spectacular ones are at the molecular level,” says Chornet, going on to speak of the significance of thermo-chemical catalysis and the advent of biomolecular catalysis and enzymes, which are leading to biochemical conversions. He continues, “twenty years ago we realized there’s a major waste problem: landfills – can we use waste to do something interesting, beyond electricity?” This line of thinking led to Enerkem from a technological standpoint, but it is also innovation on a larger scale that is making “waste to fuel” possible.

“At the systemic level, what is perhaps most innovative – and it is difficult to describe to the public – is the diversity of energy sources that we are using today. After the 50’s, and particularly when the energy crisis of the 70’s appeared, it was obvious that we could not depend on coal and oil, forever.” There was an understanding that we required a diversity of energy sources, explains Chornet. “If you look at society at large, it is spectacular the change in the energy landscape. From a coal and oil society, we have moved to gas, different types of renewables, and all of them have an impact in day to day life. At a systemic level, this is a tremendous innovation that was not planned, it just happened.”

“When I was a graduate student beyond forty years ago, the transformation of sun into electrical energy by whatever means had terribly low efficiency,” explains Chornet. “Today we have photovoltaic cells that are able to reach almost twenty-five percent conversion efficiency. I think this is a major innovation.” In terms of his own field, Chornet says he saw an opportunity to use biosystems to “transform biomass, a de-facto sun energy storage system,  into readily usable products: methanol, ethanol and other products of increasing value,” explaining that Enerkem produces methanol as an intermediary which is then turned into other molecules of interest as chemicals and alternate fuels. “We use new catalysts, three-dimensional matrices with specific active sites that are able to transform A into B: in our case, the base material is converted into more useful products.”

It is impossible to discuss renewable energy without considering the environment and the public good. This is something that Professor Chornet understands well; “energy systems are linked to ethical and social responsibility. You can solve problems in different ways, but there is a graduation of solving problems,” says Chornet, “you try to find a solution that is best for society and creates more jobs, more opportunities, opens new directions, tries not to challenge the environment, and does create wealth at large.”

For many, the low-carbon economy, an efficient intersection of economics and sustainability, can be elusive. As any engineer would, Chornet sees this as a chance for progress. “I think we have a phenomenal opportunity in the low-carbon economy. It’s a new societal concept, going back five or ten years. It’s recognized that recycling carbon is a key opportunity. For the time being it is still perhaps a little expensive, but it’s the way to go.”

When I ask Professor Chornet how waste to biofuel fits into a larger energy economy focused on fossil fuels, he suggests that current pricing doesn’t accurately reflect all externalities and thus hurts the competitiveness of the biofuels. “There is a major issue in the world that nobody wants to tackle,” he continues, “fossil fuel has been and still is generously subsidized.” Chornet argues that military efforts  to maintain a flow of hydrocarbons are a sort of subsidy along with soft environmental regulations that facilitate exploration and production activities leading to obvious excesses. He argues that if we had to put a price on the environmental impact of fossil fuel development, “then the pricing on renewable energy would be very close to the corrected pricing of fossil fuels. We do not account for these externalities, thus it is difficult to compete.” He continues, “Photovoltaics and windmills are too expensive, for the time being, against electricity generated from coal or natural gas. The only way is to provide incentives that compensate for the lack of externalities charges on other fuels."

“When I look at other countries, Canada is diversified in energy resources ” says Chornet. “Some provinces are more active than others on introducing progressively renewable energy. Alberta - even if it has a large hydrocarbon infrastructure - is trying hard to create a pool of renewable energy projects .” On Alberta, I ask Chornet about the commercial waste to fuel plant that is currently under construction in Edmonton. Under a 25 year agreement with the City, the plant, expected to start production in early 2014, will produce next-generation biofuels from 100,000 dry metric tons of sorted municipal solid waste per year. “The project has extraordinary support,” he continues. “There was receptivity to do something different with waste. The City effort goes back two decades. The City’s political leaders understood they had to do something else with waste than just landfill it or incinerating it.” Professor Chornet goes on to explain how waste is separated into recyclables and biodegradable materials that can be composted and used. The City wanted to do something with the remaining solid waste. “They were keen to find a group that would do something useful with it,” continues Chornet, “one of the groups was us, and we were selected from over one hundred groups they contacted. The relationship was very easy to establish, we had common goals and progressively we moved from gasification of the residue to yield a synthetic gas and turning it into electricity, to converting the synthetic gas into biofuels, ethanol being the initial target. They liked the idea, and they liked our guts as entrepreneurs.” Chornet credits his son Vincent Chornet, President and CEO of Enerkem, who promised that they would put forth the necessary muscle and financial resources so that the plan becomes reality. “We began a period of testing, pilot work, demonstration work, to convince everyone that the approach makes sense. In the end, we need to make money. That’s a key objective of the entire thing, since we need to pay taxes to give back to the community part of the gains ”

As with anything, there was a sceptical public. “At the beginning the question we always had was what differentiates you from incineration? So we had to develop scientific and communications arguments that put us closer to the chemical and environmental sectors. I think progressively people understood this,” explains Chornet, “we are now distinguishable from incineration. We are now considered as part of  the cleantech sector.” He describes that “we had to go through the environmental assessment done by experts, and we had to revalidate it with an experimental demonstration plant. We had to confront the public, we had on three occasions open houses where the public could come and discuss with us and the City.” Chornet explains that it took time for people to understand who Enerkem is: “entrepreneurs – we are not a major corporation that so often comes and goes, we are there to stay and do something that can be replicated.”

When I ask why Enerkem decided to delay its recent IPO, Chornet responds that “we understood that markets were not good, so we said we will withdraw and continue as a private group. We will see whether we go back to the market in the next few years. The perception has always been good, and our credibility is enhanced with time,” he says. “We are, I think, at the forefront of the cleantech groups that are very close to commercial,” he says, adding that “as a group we are happy with what we have achieved, we are strong and we think that the Edmonton project will be a phenomenal success and will change the paradigm of waste systems.” If more of these innovative technologies successfully compete within the energy and chemicals markets, Canada will find itself well positioned in the low-carbon economy complementing the existing fossil-carbon base and decreasing the GHG footprint of the country as a whole. Professor Chornet’s life work, and the future of Enerkem within Canada and abroad, will surely be one significant step toward a sustainable future.