One of the biggest challenges to wider adoption of wind and solar power is how to store the excess energy they often produce. A technology developed at the University of Chicago, and now being commercialized by a University startup, is addressing the intermittent nature of these renewable sources. It uses a selectively evolved, unicellular microorganism that helps convert electricity into methane gas. That gas can be stored, transported and used wherever natural gas is used.
Laurens Mets, associate professor of molecular genetics and cell biology, began developing the technology in the late 1990s. From it, the startup Electrochaea was born with support from the University’s technology transfer office, which is now part of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “Direct scaling at this pace and scale is rare in the energy field; but we found this technology to be eminently scalable, so I’m very confident about its commercialization,” Mets said.
The process starts with surplus electricity that is coming from a wind farm or solar array, but isn’t needed immediately. That power is used to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is combined with waste carbon dioxide from any of a variety of sources, such as a biogas or an industrial process, in a proprietary bioreactor in which the microorganisms efficiently catalyze conversion of the mixture into methane and water.
The resulting methane can be transported in existing pipelines or converted into CNG or LNG. The technology offers a large carrying capacity—more than competing bulk-energy storage systems, such as batteries, pumped hydroelectric and compressed air, according to Mets.
The potential of the patented power-to-gas technology is significant, according to Seth Snyder, leader of the Water-Energy-Sustainability Initiative at the Argonne National Laboratory. “Methane could be the primary source for much of society’s energy needs including electricity, heating, industrial processes and transportation,” he said. “Therefore a robust way to create clean methane from renewable sources has the potential to transform our energy systems.”
Source: University of Chicago