Faces of clean energy: Transforming trash into energy

“You can’t not like the idea of changing waste to fuel. It was an easy buy-in.”

In September, Clean Energy Canada will release a report forecasting the size and growth of the clean energy sector in Canada. In the lead up to the report, we talked to some of the people currently employed in the sector to get an idea of what it’s like on the ground.

This exciting field already employs roughly 300,000 Canadians and is growing far quicker than the Canadian economy as a whole. For more information on the current size of the clean energy sector, read our spring report, Missing the Bigger Picture.

Name: Charles Bureau
Job title: Process Engineer
Works at: Enerkem Alberta Biofuels facility
Favourite part of the job: “Working in a young company and being part of a team that’s all shooting for the same goal.”
Favourite hobbies: Hanging out with his two daughters and wife, playing hockey and golf.

Ever seen Back to the Future when the Doc uses trash to power the DeLorean? Well, sometimes the real world is like a sci-fi movie. Charles Bureau and his colleagues take non-recyclable trash from garbage cans and dumpsters and turn it into a clean-burning, biodegradable fuel that can be used in cars, buses, and airplanes. Like the old saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Or in this case, ethanol.

Charles is a process engineer at Enerkem, a waste-to-fuel company headquartered in Quebec that builds waste-to-biofuels facilities around the world. Charles works at Enerkem’s Alberta Biofuels facility, which is helping the City of Edmonton reach its goal of diverting 90% of its waste away from landfills.

The facility takes processed, non-recyclable, non-compostable municipal waste. The waste is, sorted, shredded, and dried before entering a gasifier which turns it into syngas (a mixture of Carbon Monoxide and hydrogen). Afterwards, the gas goes through catalytic reactors to become methanol and then eventually ethanol.

Each waste-to-fuel facility employs many people managing different stages of the process. Charles’s job is to support the daily operation of the plant and provide day-to-day guidance to the plant’s operators during the methanol to ethanol stage. His days vary, and he is often moving around the facility. “While I’m sometimes at my desk, I spend most of my time in the control room with the operators or in the field,” he says.

And because the company is fairly young, each day is a learning curve. “Day to day, as we operate we also learn more about the plant. We are always gathering more data to solidify the process,” he says. In fact, working for a new company is one of the things he loves most about his job. “It’s the first plant of a young company, and we are working as a team all shooting for the same goal. It’s a great environment to be in.”

Charles started working for Enerkem during an internship as part of his university degree after he visited the 1st pilot plant in the course of a class. As Charles puts it, “I was drawn toward clean energy. You can’t not like the idea of changing waste to fuel. It was an easy buy-in.”

Charles stayed on at Enerkem after his internship and has now been at the company for almost a decade. When not transforming trash into biofuels, he enjoys hanging out with his two daughters and wife, exploring the Rockies with them, and manages to squeeze in a game of hockey or golf.

After all, in life as in sport, Charles knows where the puck is going.