Québec Plant Will Turn Green Hydrogen and Waste into Biofuel

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Carbon recycling biofuel plant


Hydro-Québec has over 60 hydroelectric generating stations with an output of 36,700 megawatts of green power. They are going to use 88 of those megawatts to make green hydrogen, using electrolyzers from Thyssenkrupp Uhde Chlorine Engineers. CEO Denis Krude says in a press release that "Quebec as a region and Hydro-Québec as a customer offer ideal conditions for installing our water electrolysis technology on a multi-megawatt scale for the first time." The Thyssenkrupp electrolyzers run at 80% efficiency.

thyssenkrupp electrolyzers
thyssenkrupp electrolyzers. thyssenkrupp

Hydro-Québec is investing C$200 million to install the electrolyzers in Varennes, near Montréal, to generate 11,100 metric tonnes of hydrogen and 88,000 metric tonnes of oxygen annually. It will be used as "the gasification agent at the RCV biofuel plant, which will be built in a neighbouring lot estimated at a cost of over $680 million."

hydroquebec explains process
Hydro Québec

In English, the RCV stands for Varennes Carbon Recycling or VCR. The biofuel plant will convert 200,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste and wood waste into 33 million gallons of biofuel, basically ethanol. The plant is operated by Enerkem, "with a group of strategic partners, that include major investor Shell, along with Suncor and Proman," a methanol producer.

It's hard to tell exactly what the green hydrogen does in the process (Treehugger has asked but not received a reply) but a press release indicates that "The so-called Recyclage Carbone Varennes (RCV) plant will use the hydrogen coming from Hydro-Quebec as a gasification agent to convert non-recyclable waste into biofuels."

Enerkem Technology

The patented Enerkem process takes municipal waste, which is shredded and then fed into a gasifier.

"The resulting material is fed to proprietary bubbling fluidized bed gasification vessel to break down the shredded waste into its constituent molecules, a process that is called thermal cracking. In the same reactor, these broken-down molecules with steam under specific conditions produce syngas. This is a patented technology that is capable of breaking down chemically and structurally dissimilar waste and plastic materials and converting them into pure, chemical-grade, stable, and homogeneous syngas. The resulting syngas is rich in hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which are key building block molecules used in modern chemical processes."

Then, through another proprietary process, the syngas is put through a catalytic conversion into liquid methanol and then fuel-grade ethanol, or in summary (emphasis mine):

"This patented technology is an advanced thermochemical process that chemically recycles carbon molecules contained in waste into added-value products such as renewable methanol and ethanol. It takes waste in less than five minutes to produce synthetic gas, and convert it into advanced low-carbon transportation biofuel – enough to fuel over 400,000 cars on a 5% ethanol blend. In turn, biofuels also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 60% when compared to fossil fuel production and landfilling."

Does This Make Any Sense?

Enerkem solutions

So let me get this straight. You take C$200 million of electrolyzers running at 80% efficiency to make hydrogen that you pump into a giant C$680 million plant to make ethanol at who knows what efficiency, to fuel cars and trucks with internal combustion engines that convert between 17% and 21% of the energy into power at the wheels (the rest is lost in heat and chemistry and exhaust emissions). This, instead of taking all that green Québec electric power and putting it straight into electric cars that run at between 85% and 90% efficiency with no tailpipe emissions.

The math gets even crazier. If cars could run on pure ethanol, 400,000 cars at a 5% blend would convert to 20,000 cars at 100%. If you took that C$875 million and converted it into Tesla Model 3 cars at C$50,000 each, you would get 17,500 cars. Ask Elon for a quantity discount and you might get 20,000 cars for Hydro-Québec to feed. In an era when we are trying to get people out of gas-powered cars and into electric vehicles, that would make a lot more sense.

So why is this happening? The big oil companies, Shell and Suncor, are investors in this. They make the gas that is the other 95% of the fuel, and really, after the Québec and Canadian governments have sunk close to a billion bucks in this plant, are they going to try and ban gasoline-powered cars? They have an investment to protect! A consultant also tells Treehugger that "the petroleum industry would love to point to a process that deals with the plastic waste that can't be recycled/down-cycled." It's that circular economy that the plastic industry has hijacked.

Seriously, there are many useful things that can be done with green hydrogen, and I hope Thyssenkrupp sells a million of their electrolyzers. But turning it into cellulosic ethanol at who knows what cost per gallon is not one of them.