“Just because people throw it out and don’t have any use for it, doesn’t mean it’s garbage.” – Andy Warhol.
Squeezing every drop of value out of a feedstock is something that humans have been doing for thousands of years. Getting more heat out of a fire, extracting more metal out of ore, growing more crops in a field – it’s instinctive to make the most out of what you have. Innovation over the millennia have led to exponential improvements. However, after a few thousand years of effort, much of the low hanging innovative fruit has already been picked. Some technologies plateaued decades ago – allowing an engineer to walk into a plant and see things that would be recognizable from 30, 50, or even 100 years ago. Mining flotation circuits look much the same as they did 80 years ago. Hydropower turbines look very similar now to how they were shaped 100 or even 200 years ago. And we’re all quite happy to continue to take advantage of the mechanical efficiencies of shipping by rail.
The remaining bleeding-edge technologies can sometimes be troublesome. Most experienced engineers will have some war story about a ground-breaking new technology that proved to be commercially unviable, leaving a huge white elephant somewhere on the plant floor and taking some hapless executive or manager’s job victim as it was decommissioned. The pressure to keep budgets down can also result in innovation only being considered when a component has finally reached the end of its life – a process unit needs to genuinely be obsolete before modern replacements are considered.
In the face of this, there are new market pressures and opportunities changing the landscape of how industries can deliver a profit. The prices of many commodities have stagnated, but the costs associated with emissions and waste disposal keep increasing. Carbon pricing started only two years ago at $10/tonne, and is projected to increase to $50/tonne over the next few years. Tipping fees at landfills have increased rapidly – with Calgary charging $64/tonne in 2008, rising to $113/tonne in 2017. Other contaminants have been recognized as being far more toxic than previously thought. Selenium is a good example of this, where maximum acceptable levels have been tightened up nearly seven-fold over thirty years. This pressure is fueling new innovation, all in the pursuit of the circular economy.
To use a car analogy, the business focus has shifted from the engine to the tailpipe. Thankfully, waste- and emissions-focused innovation has continually progressed for decades, essentially waiting for market opportunity to allow these technologies to be utilized. Government grants and improved pricing on “green” products has turned by-products into massive opportunities for profit. Waste products can genuinely be converted from liabilities into revenue streams. Renewable fuels are especially valuable now, and example being BC’s currently valuation of $22-$30 per gigajoule for renewable natural gas, a ten-fold premium over fossil-sourced natural gas.
Turning Waste Streams to Profit Streams
So that brings our attention to the companies that are genuinely turning waste streams into profit streams. Ore sorting has been around for decades, but now the technology has progressed to the point where waste rock has gotten a second life as feedstock. A company called Sulphide Remediation Inc. has a technology that removes the gold with the sulphides in waste piles, subsequently leaving the piles classified as non acid-generating, while at the same time producing a waste product that can be sold at high profit margins. PCS Technologies uses longstanding pulp & paper technology to take your biomass waste – something that could have been subject to a $170/tonne tipping fee – to produce renewable coal or even higher-grade carbon products. A waste stream is converted into a valuable product and carbon credits are produced at the same time. SonoAsh takes troublesome coal ash and produces two streams – a benign Portland cement product and a high-carbon / high-REE product. There are hundreds of other companies, all ready with technologies that have been waiting for the market pressures we are seeing today.
At Scovan, we’re helping both operators and technology providers build the circular economy by delivering both economic and technical solutions. Scovan is championing new technology and innovation to make meaningful progress towards a net zero emissions future. Together, we aim to be the disruptor, not the disrupted. So, when the time comes to consider capital projects, be sure to check the tailpipe. That waste stream may be more valuable than previously thought, and together we may even find programs for external economic assistance to make the project even more viable.
Scovan Engineering Inc.
Scovan is a state-of-the-art engineering firm that specializes in offering innovation and experience for traditional and renewable energy related industrial projects by providing engineering, procurement and construction management services. Scovan generates positive results for their clients through their unique and innovative approach to engineering and flexible commercial models. Visit us at www.Scovan.ca
Written by: Brent Lyon, Director, Regional Business Development