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Switch to biogas allows Canadian Umicore site to cut carbon emissions by 90%


As Umicore strives to be a Sustainability Champion under its 2030 RISE strategy, we are rethinking and transforming our processes to achieve our Let’s Go for Zero target of Net Zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2035.

An example of how we are doing this can be seen at our site at Markham in Ontario, Canada. ​​​​​​​​​​The plant serves Umicore’s Jewellery and Industrial Metals business unit, refining gold, silver, platinum, palladium and other precious metals for jewellery, dentistry, chemical and industrial sectors.

The plant recently achieved a considerable reduction in its GHG emissions by replacing natural gas with biogas for its heating needs. As most of the plant’s furnaces are already electric, and with around three quarters of Ontario’s electricity generation coming from renewable and nuclear energy sources, the plant’s use of natural gas for heating was one of the main contributors to its carbon footprint. 

This had been on the mind of Paul Koolhaas, Managing Director at Umicore Markham. He explains: ‘’In Canada, we’re living with the effects of climate change, with devastating forest fires and melting ice caps, all of which has an effect on our wildlife. Nature is very important to us, so the urgency of reducing carbon emissions is top of mind for many people here.’’ 

Paul says the idea for switching to biogas came to him one day while driving. ‘’I was commuting to work, thinking of how we could reduce our carbon footprint, and I saw an office of Bullfrog Power, a renewable energy and biogas provider. I contacted them and realised it could be an ideal solution.’’ A contract was signed soon after, which means all of Umicore Markham’s natural gas usage has now been displaced by biogas. It is a matching system that injects an amount of green natural gas equivalent to the gas used from conventional fossil sources. This avoids the emission of 500 tonnes of CO2e per year, cutting Umicore Markham’s Scope 1 CO2 emissions by 90%.

The direct displacement of fossil fuel in this way aligns with Umicore’s approach to reduce its Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions. As Gert Van Hoof, Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and Recycling Manager in Umicore’s ESG team in Brussels, explains:

‘’We aim to do this with three main levers: first of all, we try to avoid emissions where we can; second we try to replace sources of emissions with lower or net-zero carbon alternatives; and lastly, we capture whatever we cannot design out of our operations. This initiative in Markham, replacing fossil fuel with biogas, is a perfect example of the second lever to decarbonising our own operations.’’

Gert Van Hoof

Where does biogas come from?

Energy-rich biogas is sourced from organic materials as they decompose, for example in wastewater treatment and landfill installations, releasing methane into the atmosphere. By capturing the methane, which is 25 times more of a potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, the process avoids GHG emissions. After it is captured, the biogas is cleaned and injected into the gas system. Burning biogas does not add any net ‘new’ CO2 to the atmosphere, because the carbon in the gas originates naturally from the organic materials it is sourced from. The biogas supplied by Bullfrog Power is not piped exclusively to Umicore’s plant – instead Umicore matches the plant’s annual gas usage with the quantity of biogas Bullfrog produces and injects into the gas grid. In this way, the plant’s gas usage can continue exactly as before, ensuring a seamless transition and no special technical requirements. “It works as an offset of the natural gas we use at the facility, so we purchase exactly the same amount of biogas as we use at the plant,’’ explains Paul, adding that the arrangement fits with Umicore’s preference for suppliers which focus on circularity and provide low-carbon solutions. This partnership allows Umicore to join Bullfrog Power in supporting the growing biogas sector and the circular technologies that turn what would have otherwise become pollution into an energy source.

Gert says the transition to biogas was ‘’the perfect fit’’ for Markham’s specific size and requirements. However, he adds that the still-limited scale at which biogas can be sourced means it isn’t achievable for all Umicore’s facilities. ‘’This facility is located close to where biogas is produced and is just the right size for the volume that can be provided. So, it’s an ideal solution for this site. We are taking a proactive stance towards replacing fossil fuels with green energy solutions, such as biogas, wherever feasible in terms of scale and location.’’

As well as replacing carbon emissions, Paul is looking forward to avoiding more emissions at the plant by focusing on energy efficiency, for example by replacing windows with high-insulation alternatives, investing in better insulation and switching to lower-energy lighting.

‘’We all have a part to play in tackling climate change and achieving our net zero goals. I’ve been worried for a long time about where the world’s heading if carbon emissions don’t come down. Everyone needs to shoulder some weight and we can all help each other on the road to Net Zero. We don’t have a huge production plant here in Markham, but I’m proud of how we’ve dramatically reduced our carbon footprint and I’m already looking for what we can do next.’’