Delivering operational excellence for anaerobic digester facilities
Founded in 2012, Azura Associates is a niche engineering firm based in Waterloo, Ontario, that provides services in bioprocess engineering for aerobic and anaerobic microbial conversion systems.
The company’s anaerobic digestion practice focuses on food industry wastewater and waste-to-energy applications, including municipal source-separated organics (SSO), agri-food, on-farm, and market food-waste digesters that produce biogas and renewable natural gas (RNG).
“Our portfolio of services places us in a unique place within the green economy, where we help project owners actually get what they were hoping to get when they start a project,” says David Ellis, founder and CEO of Azura Associates.
“The promise of anaerobic digestion, or waste to energy systems, has been around for hundreds of years but has faced technological challenges like how to deal with corrosion, cleaning the gas, and maintaining biological stability for consistent gas output and revenue generation.
“Now, the technology has matured enough for these systems to provide tremendous financial and agronomic value. For instance, waste passing through an anaerobic digester does not lose nitrogen or phosphorus, so its value as fertilizer does not diminish.”
Ellis sees waste management as going beyond environmental stewardship and the production of green energy, arguing that it has a more significant role to play in food security.
“Much of our food comes from oil,” he says. ” Most ammonia fertilizer comes from natural gas, and without natural gas, we would not be able to support anywhere near the number of people in the world currently. Waste has tremendous value due to its agronomic properties like nitrogen and phosphorus, and much can be achieved if food waste is properly processed instead of ending up in a landfill.”
Azura fits into this waste management jigsaw puzzle by helping ensure waste management projects are built while considering all the risks and dependencies that might cause them to fail.
The company’s services span the full life-cycle of a biogas project, from initial due diligence, regulatory compliance, and concept design review, to development risk management, process troubleshoots and even sometimes litigation support.
“Risk mitigation is one of the primary areas we work in, and this is because the industry does not yet have enough standardized controls to refer to,” says Ellis.
“For example, NOAA data indicated that half of the US experienced drought conditions this year while at the same time, some areas are experiencing 1000-year storm events. These conditions make it extremely difficult for project owners to future-proof projects, and that is where our expertise comes in.”
Balance Biogas is looking at developing the first food-waste-to-biogas systems in the Yukon. Anaerobic digesters are already proven to work well, with several operating north of the arctic circle in Europe. These systems will help manage food and organic waste in a sustainable way, and also produce low-carbon heat and power for the local community.
Azura is advising Radius RNG LP who is developing a cluster of on-farm renewable natural gas (RNG) facilities in Ontario to reduce emissions from agricultural operations in southern Ontario and decarbonize natural gas for homes and businesses.
As with most projects, risk mitigation’s primary role is to guarantee project success. In Azura’s market, success means waste management systems that stay online and reliably generate significant returns for project owners.
“One dairy farmer we worked with in Ontario had a digester that wasn’t working,” Ellis says. “It was not making gas, so he was weighing the option of bulldozing the site and planting corn. We led him through the process of running and maintaining the digester, and soon, it was working so well, he decided to build a second one.”
Azura typically collaborates with clients for one or two years, helping streamline their processes and training them on managing their equipment and biology. However, despite waste management being an equipment-intensive industry, Ellis quickly points out that his consultancy does not provide equipment.
“Digesters are not rocket ships. It’s mostly a tank with a heater and a mixer,” Ellis says. “Where project owners need the most help is keeping the biology happy and the digester healthy.”
“I like to say having a digester is like keeping a pet. You cannot just dump a whole bag of food on the floor and go on a two-week vacation to Mexico. Similarly, you cannot dump waste in a digester and leave it unattended; you need to pay attention and follow all the processes to ensure it works as intended.”
Another area the company helps clients with the seasonality of waste management. Ellis says that clients often find themselves in a tight spot when a different season rolls in, and the waste management methods that work in summer, for example, are challenging to implement in winter.
“In North America, we have freezing winters,” Ellis explains. “If whatever a client puts in the digester tends to dry out in the summer, it freezes into a giant block of ice in winter. How do you get a giant block of ice into a digester? In this case, we recommend breaking it into smaller pieces using earth-moving equipment.”
In some cases, Azura acts as a ‘Project Pathfinder,’ helping the client get from where they are to the desired destination.
“Most clients know what they want to achieve but do not have the processes to get them there. It is like seeing a river in the distance and knowing where it is, but a forest lies before you, and you are not sure how to get through it.”
Ellis works with a small team of subject-matter experts at Azura and explains that this works well because waste management deals with the same bacteria and processes regardless of the industry.
“Bacteria that make methane from food waste are the same bacteria found at the bottom of swamps and rivers worldwide,” says Ellis. “So, whether you are a vegetable, meat, or prepared food processor, our team has the expertise to develop waste management solutions for you.”
Besides developing process solutions, Ellis’ team helps clients navigate the waste management technology landscape, a challenge most face due to many options.
“Clients now come to us more educated due to the Internet, but this access to information has also flooded them with options, which makes it difficult for them to pick the right technology for their needs.”
“We help them sift through the options and understand what will work best for them. It is like buying a car. There are thousands of options, but not all will work for you just because it is a car. If you are in Arizona, you need a super-powered air conditioning system, while in Alberta, you will need a block heater.”
Azura Associates has worked on projects in Canada, Europe, Africa, the United States, and South America, although most of the company’s work is concentrated in Canada and the United States.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Ellis says the company kept working because all its clients were deemed essential, although site visits were restricted to road travel to avoid air travel.
Throughout Covid, Azura relied on key partners to deliver solutions to its clients. One such partner is CEM Engineering, an engineering consultancy in St. Catharines, Ontario.
“We’ve collaborated on several projects with CEM Engineering, which does considerable work around digesters, natural gas, and renewable natural gas as an EPC contractor,” Ellis says.
“Because our industry is relatively new compared to sewage, there are no textbooks you can get information from. So, there’s still much work for consultants like CEM Engineering and Azura Associates who provide insights on key risk points and feed that information back to due diligence and risk reviews.”
As the waste management industry advances and evolves and processes become more standardized, Ellis has a positive outlook because of increasing interest from the private and public sectors.
“Folks are talking about building multiple facilities per year, signaling tremendous growth over the next three to five years. I also expect to see these applications go global as people look for alternative energy sources and try to work around the various emerging challenges from the climate crisis.”
“For instance, one dairy farmer in Africa wanted to generate biogas so they can run their generators all day and keep the harvested milk chilled because they were getting no power from the grid.”
“These and similar stories are just the beginning of an industry set to explode and impact the energy and food security industries.”
“My former boss saw this day coming, but he was forty years too early. I am excited to see his vision finally coming to pass as waste management begins to play a more pivotal role in the global economy.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: niche engineering firm that provides services supporting anaerobic digesters, biogas, and RNG production
Where: Waterloo, Ontario
Integrated Explorations Inc. – www.iebiolab.com
Integrated Explorations offers an extensive array of services by utilizing our combined expertise in microbiology, analytical chemistry and environmental biotechnology. We provide both routine and specialized procedures for testing digestate and feedstock. We are focused on supporting the biogas industry through laboratory testing, research and development and consulting. Visit us at iebiolab.com