CH-Four Biogas Inc. of Ottawa has quickly earned the distinguished reputation as a key industry leader and pioneering firm in the advancement of anaerobic digestion technology, designed to propagate the decline of waste materials, while turning that waste into useable energy.
THE COMPANY IS spearheaded by its founder, President and CEO Benjamin Strehler, and Operations and Development Director Ethan Werner, who came on board in 2012 as a coowner when a decision was made to expand and explore new business opportunities. The company also has two field offices in Port Coquitlam, B.C. and Rensselaer, New York.
In layman’s terms, biogas technology is essentially the recycling of organic waste and then turning it into organic fertilizer and energy, all the while leaving a much smaller carbon footprint than is created through conventional methods. Biogas consists of roughly 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide. The co-product is digestate, which is used as organic fertilizer, livestock bedding or compost.
Anaerobic Digestion Technology
Anaerobic digestion is a collection of processes by which micro organisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. Such a process can be applied to any number of industrial or domestic applications as an efficient method of managing waste and providing alternative fuel production. Anaerobic digestion occurs naturally in some soils and in lake and ocean basin sediments, where it is often referred to as “anaerobic activity”.
“It is essentially copying nature,” Strehler begins. “It’s the same process as fossil oil is being produced in the oceans or the lakes but it is in the liquid phase and the organics are in an anaerobic environment; some micro organisms are breaking down the biomass and creating the biogas in the process.”
The benefits of this technological program are vast, including: a significant reduction in odour; generation of high-quality fertilizer for farming use; drastically cutting the release of methane, which is a contributor to climate change; and reducing the need for landfill tonnages. The addition of the biogas system at Seabreeze Farms ensures future employment and competitiveness while being environmentally beneficial.
With Strehler and Werner at the helm, CH-Four Biogas is continually seeking out new methods to bring more advanced technologies into this industry.
“We have a very strong focus on research and continue to develop our technology,” Strehler notes. “Currently the research is focusing to a very large extent on capturing the fertilizer value of the digestate.”
CH-Four Biogas is just finishing up the deployment of its second-generation digestater technology, which amounts to a complete redesigned enhancement from the first generation products and services. The most advanced CH-Four Biogas installation to date has been undertaken just outside Vancouver at Seabreeze Farms Ltd. in Delta, B.C. Design, planning and execution of the second-generation technology have been about two years in the making. By anaerobically digesting their dairy manure with local food wastes, Seabreeze will now be able to realize additional revenue streams as well as cost savings for the existing farming business. It is what can be referred to as “game-changing” technology.
“This allows us to build bigger projects, while being very cost effective and energy efficient,” Strehler proudly states. “There is the option to do more with those plants in the sense of nutrient recovery and potentially deploying technologies in the biochemical side and in the waste treatment industry because this new design has the flexibility to easily adapt.”
CH-Four Biogas works with a number of trusted partners in developing the biogas technology industry.
“We have a long-standing relationship with Suma and we are working very well together,” Strehler notes. “We’re incorporating their product in our second generation biogas plant and are now constructing the first unit. With DMT we are hoping to work very close with them on the utility side for natural gas injection and potentially more on filtration technology related to nutrient recovery.”
Octaform provides a specialized tank forming technology and DMT contributes with its membrane memory spectrum. Other notable key partners of CH-Four Biogas include Kilmarnock Enterprise, Greenlane Biogas and Environmental Fabrics.
The two primary by-products are biogas and digestate. Selling the resultant electricity to the various public power utilities serves as a core base for revenue generation.
“The gas is turned into electricity and then sold to the public utility whoever that may be such as Hydro One,” Strehler remarks. “Essentially every province and U.S. state has its own utilities’ providers. The other alternative is to upgrade it through renewable natural gas; we are currently doing that in British Columbia.”
At the end of the day, renewable natural gas is no different than natural gas as a final product. The only difference is the route taken. CH-Four Biogas makes the gas from organic waste, while natural gas is of course pumped out of the ground – the conventional fossil fuel.
“On the organic side, we always make sure our digestate gets recycled into agriculture so it gets used as fertilizer,” Strehler affirms.
As one would expect, the main customers are farmers but CH-Four Biogas is increasingly its clientele in the industrial sector as well. The biogas plant owners tend to store the digestate and then sell it into the agricultural industry as an organic fertilizer.
A major benefit of this highly efficient recycling technology is the noticeable reduction in waste being sent to landfills. This is even more crucial as many municipalities have imposed much stricter rules regarding what materials can be discarded, and how much.
“It’s a big driver these days,” Strehler confirms. “More jurisdictions have imposed landfill bans for organics and anybody who’s doing that really has to look at biogas technology; it’s really the best solution.”
As of now, more than 7MW of electricity capacity is generated from CH-Four Biogas plants, which represents an incredible amount of usable power for the public grid. With each system built to specific substrates of their clients, CH-Four Biogas plants typically produce energy in the range of 100kW to 1MW, with the majority producing an average of between 400 and 500kW.
Advantages of biogas technology are wide spread, but most notably from an economic standpoint, where the systems pay for themselves between five and seven years with a lifespan of at least 20 years. There is also an amazing 99% reduction in the release of harmful pathogens.
Canada and the United States have consistently trailed behind much of Europe in embracing this recycling technology, so the fact that Strehler brings his knowledge and expertise from his home country of Switzerland to introduce the methodology here in Canada has provided a huge boost to the technological profile for such proven recycling efforts. Now, along with Werner and the rest of the team at CH-Four Biogas, they are aiming at vastly expanding this recycling technology. But there is still a long way to go in moving society away from its dependence on conventional fossil fuels and being accustomed with renewable technologies.
“We are doing similar to the U.S.,” Strehler says. “The U.S. was early to adopt it just on the agricultural side but not including food waste and that’s a recipe we were pioneering for years here in Canada, especially CH-Four Biogas. Now the U.S. is catching up but it’s still a matter of growth. Canada is a bit stagnant right now, especially in Ontario, which used to be the main market. But now the biggest growth is seen in Alberta and British Columbia and to some extent the Maritimes as well.”
In addition to the general societal malaise in moving towards a more robust renewables solution is the issue of dealing with a number of regulatory bodies that tend to bog the process down even more. It’s a frustration Strehler and his team have had to deal with since starting in the business.
“The U.S. is much more advanced on the regulatory side,” Strehler laments. “They process the whole application much more efficiently than anybody in Canada could dream of; Canada is way behind.”
In Ontario there is the Biogas Association, to which Strehler is on the board of directors with another seven colleagues within the industry. It’s the association, on behalf of the businesses, that handles much of the lobbying to both the provincial and federal governments in an effort to get them to speed up the pace not only with the regulatory bodies but in a more general acceptance of this technology as a mainstream solution to solving waste problems while also providing an excellent source of power that can be used in the public domain. In other provinces such as British Columbia, CH-Four Biogas is effectively on its own when it comes to lobbying on behalf of the merits of the business sector.
“In the U.S. there is the American Biogas Council, to which we are a member,” Strehler tells us.
“By far the biggest issue is the bureaucracy,” Strehler candidly states. “The second largest hurdle, which is still significant, is dealing with the utilities that are local, be it provincial or state. It is often a very lengthy process dealing with the utilities. It’s not always like that; Fortis in B.C. is a shining example of a utility that is very open and receptive, but they are unfortunately the exception.”
A primary goal through research and development at CH-Four Biogas is to make other useful chemicals out of biogas.
“It’s coming to realization but I’d say the commercial application is still probably another five to 10 years away,” Strehler opines. “On a broad scale we see more petrochemicals being substituted by biochemical products and biogas is definitely a big part of the entire movement.”
Strehler and Werner have a keen vision for where they envision CH-Four Biogas and the industry in the coming years.
“On the technical side, it’s definitely that we create more value out of the digestate as an organic fertilizer and nutrient recovery out of biogas plants,” Strehler replies. We want to take newly developed processes out of the lab and bring them to commercial scale plants, since efficient real scale process engineering is amongst our biggest strengths and we are maintaining close relationships with different universities.”
“Another market of interest is waste water treatment, where energy production so far was a by-product at best,” he continues. “There is a substantial energy efficiency and production potential where we can tap into, bringing our process engineering skills and second generation anaerobic digestion technology to the table. We further intend to run trucks on biogas directly with a fleet of trucks for things like garbage trucks or school buses that will be powered by biogas. That is something I’d like to see over the next two to five years. From a company perspective we definitely want to go stronger in the U.S. as well as Central and South America because we think there is a very strong potential there.