Esteban Chornet, the prince of green chemistry

Rare are the libraries of waste. In the glass shelf of Esteban Chornet, it is however many jars filled with dried debris that we find. Plastics, packaging, fabrics, forest residues: this material is just waiting to deliver its energy to whoever holds the key to its chemical sarcophagus.

Floating in a slightly too big blue shirt, Mr. Chornet also harbors a lot of energy. At 80, this renowned chemical engineer and entrepreneur may be losing his physical vitality — “my wife forces me to use a cane” — but nothing slows his mind.

The processes invented by this retired professor from the University of Sherbrooke, and then perfected and scaled up at Enerkem, the company he founded with his son in 2002, are now making the rounds of the world. After the Edmonton plant and the one under construction in Varennes, projects are being prepared in Spain and the Netherlands.

These factories aim to transform waste into biofuels. In the Enerkem research center in Westbury, near Sherbrooke, Mr. Chornet holds out a bottle filled with a liquid that looks identical to water. It’s ethanol — or, as the average person would say, pure alcohol.

Gasoline at service stations already contains a few percent ethanol. However, most of this comes from maize, contributing at the same time to global food insecurity. Producing it from scrap reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also helps to bury less waste.

Mr. Chornet’s recipe? The shredded waste is heated to high temperature in a reactor, which releases its carbon and hydrogen molecules. After purification, this synthetic gas is concentrated and transformed into ethanol, but also into methanol, a chemical substance which is used in particular to manufacture plastics, paints and glues. Only a few ashes remain from the original waste.

A professor who takes the leap

Esteban Chornet was born in 1942 in Majorca, Spain, in the middle of World War II and just after the trying civil war that brought General Franco to power. “Post-civil war Spain was a poor Spain, we had nothing,” he says. Its small island community lives in autarky and without having the luxury of producing any waste.

To earn a living, his father established two sawmills. Oil deliveries are paralyzed in Europe. Like several other entrepreneurs affected by the disruption of supply chains, he learns to transform the residues of his sawmill into « lean gas », which allows him to run an electric generator.

Throughout the 1950s, the young Esteban took advantage of the Mallorcan beaches and played soccer. He learns French at school and English from tourists. “English was important for flirting,” he explains. After studying engineering in Barcelona, ​​he headed for the United States in 1966, where he earned a doctorate.

The young chemical engineering researcher, accompanied by his wife, Mercedes, and their first son, Nicolas (now a member of Moderna’s senior management), arrived in Sherbrooke in 1970. Mr. Chornet obtained a professorship at the university, where he specialized quickly – under the impetus of the oil crisis of 1973 – in the extraction of energy from forest residues and waste.

The taste for risk already tickles him, despite the comfort of his teacher’s slippers. Multiplying contacts in Canada and the United States, he became an adviser to Biosyn, a subsidiary of Hydro-Québec that was trying to make ethanol from forest biomass, a resource that was obviously abundant in the province. The project is a « fiasco », but Mr. Chornet will learn from the mistakes of this adventure.

In the 1990s, he laid the first stones leading, at the turn of the millennium, to the founding of Enerkem with his son Vincent, who had learned his trade by working at Shell. His third son, Michel, would join them later and lead the construction of the plant in Edmonton. This family adventure, however, took a tragic turn in 2019, when cancer took away Vincent, who was then the big boss of Enerkem.

Kerosene from wood

» Hello, salam aleykum ! shouts Esteban Chornet at the top of his voice as he enters the premises of CRB Innovations, Enerkem’s sister company which shares the Westbury site. Engineer Abdellah Chaker is carrying out tests there for a “steam cracking fractionation” process, which makes it possible to extract precious energy molecules from wood residues.

“Mr. Chornet is the father of this technology,” says Mr. Chaker. It’s his own baby, he’s been working on it since the 1970s.” The engineer was aware of the work of the Canadian professor in his country of origin, Algeria, and dreamed of working with him.

In the engine room, tall metal tanks and shiny pipes form the backdrop. The goal here is to produce sustainable aviation fuel from forest biomass. Wood chips are « cracked » at high temperatures to change their chemical structure.

“It is from this that we make fuel oil aviation,” explains Mr. Chaker, pointing to brownish, crumbly granules. Using forest biomass holds particular promise for making sustainable kerosene, according to Chornet. This does not require capturing carbon from the air or using renewable electricity. And if the forests are exploited in a sustainable way, they manage to swallow the CO2 released by aircraft engines.

Professor Emeritus Chornet does not subscribe to the dominant vision of the energy transition promoted today: he does not believe that electrification and renewable energies will be able to meet all of humanity’s needs. He is convinced that forest biomass and the transformation of waste have important roles to play, as well as nuclear energy.

“Nothing can be done without the possibility of profit,” he adds. The state cannot pay for everything. To carry out major waste recovery projects, Enerkem does not hesitate to partner with the oil companies Suncor, Shell and Repsol. At CRB Innovations, of which he is the technological manager, he is however seeking to develop a process that can be extended to a multitude of small regional factories.

Last spring, CRB Innovations and Enerkem won a $5 million prize for winning first place in a federal government competition to develop clean, sustainable, and economically viable aviation fuel. To bring the proof of concept to the demonstration plant, the group is now looking for funding.

“CRB requires a push “, observes Mr. Chornet, unstoppable. At 80 well-counted autumns, it is still he who thinks about the scientific avenues that his colleagues could test in the experimental factory. Ideas bubble up in his mind, and when he sees an interesting possibility, he goes for it. “The door is only open for a while,” he concludes.

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