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Cookin' with gas

Whitehorse's food waste is being turned into gas. No, not that kind. Earlier this month staff with Yukon Energy and Cold Climate Innovation at the Yukon Research Centre...

Whitehorse’s food waste is being turned into gas.

No, not that kind.

Earlier this month staff with Yukon Energy and Cold Climate Innovation at the Yukon Research Centre donned rubber boots and gloves and trekked out to the city compost facility to fill two 55-gallon drums.

One was filled with food waste like banana peels and apple cores, the second with yard waste like leaves.

It’s the first messy step in determining whether that kind of organic trash can be used to power Whitehorse in the future.

The two organizations are spending a total of $20,000 to send the drums to the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute in Humboldt, Sask. There the contents will be mixed, heated and tested to see just how much biogas can be created.

Biogas is the gas that’s produced when organic material is broken down.

Other jurisdictions in Canada, and as far away as Europe, use the gas as a renewable source of natural energy.

“Essentially, what we wanted to find out is whether it was viable here in the North to use bacteria, to use bugs, to turn food into renewable energy,” said Yukon Energy’s Janet Patterson.

Scientists in Saskatchewan will be taking the two Whitehorse barrels and mixing different ratios of food waste to yard waste, Patterson explained.

The samples will be sealed, along with some bacteria to jump start the process, and heated to 38 degrees Celsius.

“While this is cooking, biogas is being produced, this energy is being produced. Then they’re measuring both the amount of it and the composition of it.”

Robert Cooke, a project officer with Cold Climate Innovation, said his department is always interested in looking at alternative energy sources.

“If we can demonstrate that the compost waste that we’re generating at the landfill here can be used in a biogas generator then this is potentially something that we can look to use in the communities across the whole North as well,” he said.

“We’re keen to see benefits for all northern communities.”

A biogas generator would produce electricity and, as a byproduct, heat. “So you’re getting two sources, electricity which could be fed into the grid, and heat which could be used to heat local buildings,” Cooke said.

Based on all the research they’ve seen in other jurisdictions, heating organic material to create biogas doesn’t appear to change its ability to be used as compost after the fact, Patterson said.

Creating biogas would just be adding a step before the compost gets used, she said.

The fact that “feedstock” for this project is growing is an important piece of the puzzle, Patterson said.

In 2011 Yukon Energy did some initial research into using non-organic garbage from the dump to generate energy.

In the end that project was not financially viable.

“Essentially, there wasn’t enough feedstock, especially since the City of Whitehorse was encouraging people to not throw all of their stuff into the landfill,” Patterson said.

This project doesn’t have that problem. In fact, it feeds into to the city’s waste-reduction plan.

In 2013, 2,267 tonnes of organics came to the Whitehorse compost facility from residential homes, said the city’s organics co-ordinator, Miles Hume. This year the city started accepting organic waste from commercial buildings, so that number is expected to double, he said.

Both Patterson and Cooke agree that this research is only a first step.

Once they know the amount and quality of the gas that could be produced, the next step is to look at whether the generating process would be financially viable, Patterson said.

In December 2013, a biogas facility opened in Lethbridge, Alta. The $30 million facility has a generating capacity of 2.8 MW - enough to power 2,800 homes, according to reports at the time.

It uses manure and other organic wastes.

It’s considered the largest facility of its kind in Canada.

Surrey, B.C. is also working on plans to build its own generating plant.

Results from the Whitehorse experiment are expected some time around Christmas.

Contact Ashley Joannou at