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Highly durable platinum-palladium-based alloy electrocatalyst for PEM fuel cells

To decrease the consumption of fossil fuel-derived energy for transportation, proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) are one of the most promising clean power sources. Their performance, however, strongly depends on the efficiency and durability of the electrocatalyst used for the hydrogen and oxygen reactions occurring at the electrodes. Noble metals such as platinum and gold are still considered as the most efficient catalysts. At the same time, their high cost and scarcity are major road blocks for scale commercialization of these energy devices.

Various solutions of catalyst design are intensively investigated in order to make this technology economically successful. Searching for high catalyst activity and durability for fuel cells is in focus of current research and development. To date, state-of-the-art electrocatalysts are based on carbon materials with varying platinum loadings.

Ultra-high active platinum group metal (PGM) alloy catalyst

Although, recent research reported ultra-high activity of some metal alloy catalysts, problems still remain. Some of these issues are related to utilization of high atomic percentages of PGM (sometimes up to 75% Pt), poor durability and performance under industrial conditions. In search for new solutions, researchers of the State University of New York at Binghamton, USA, and their collaborators reported a new design in journal Nature Communication: a highly-durable alloy catalyst was obtained by alloying platinum and palladium at less than 50% with 3d-transition metals (Cu, Ni or Co) in ternary compositions.

They addressed the problem of severe de-alloying of conventional alloy catalysts under the operating conditions, resulting in declining performance. For the first time, dynamic re-alloying as a way to self-healing catalysts under realistic operating conditions has been demonstrated to improve fuel cell durability.

Alloy combination and composition

The wet-chemical method was used for synthesis of Pt20PdnCu80−n alloy nanoparticles with the desired platinum, palladium and copper percentages. The selected set of ternary alloy nanoparticles with tunable alloy combinations and compositions, contained a total content of platinum and palladium of less than 50%, keeping it lower than current PGM-based alloy catalysts. The incorporation of palladium into platinum nanomaterials enabled a lower degree of de-alloying and therefore better stability. Additionally, palladium is a good metal partner to platinum due to their catalytic synergy and their resistance to acid corrosion.

To reduce the need for platinum and palladium core catalysts, a third, non-noble transition metal played a central role in the catalytic synergy of alloying formation. Non-noble metals such as copper, cobalt, nickel or similar were used. The platinum-palladium alloy with base metals allowed the researchers to fine tune the thermodynamic stability of the catalysts.

Morphology and phase structure

The thermochemical treatment of carbon-supported nanoparticles was crucial for the structural optimization. The metal atoms in the catalytic nanoparticles were loosely packed with an expanded lattice constant. The oxidative and reductive treatments of the platinum-palladium alloy (PGM <50%) allowed a thermodynamically stable state in terms of alloying, re-alloying and lattice strains. The re-alloying process not only homogenized the inhomogeneous composition by inter-diffusion upon calcination of nanoparticles, but also provided an effective pathway for self-healing following de-alloying.

Single face-centered cubic type structures were observed in Pt20PdnCu80–n nanoparticles (n = 20, 40, 60, 80) nanoalloys. Copper-doping of platinum-palladium alloys reduced the lattice constant effectively, as shown by high energy X-ray diffraction. Maximized compressive strain and maximized activity of the Pt20Pd20Cu60 catalyst confirmed strong correlation between the lattice constants and the oxygen reduction activity.

The researchers demonstrated that the thermodynamically-stable Pt20Pd20Cu60/C catalyst exhibited not only the largest compressive strain after 20,000 cycles, but also high activity and high durability. The discovery that the alloy catalyst remains alloyed under fuel cell operating condition is in sharp contrast to the fully de-alloyed or phase-segregated platinum skin or platinum shell catalysts reported in almost all current literature.

The significance in understanding of the thermodynamic stability of the catalyst system is a potential paradigm shift of design, preparation, and processing of alloy electrocatalysts.

(Photo: Pixabay)

 

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Making zinc-air batteries rechargeable using developed cobalt(II) oxide as a catalyst

Zinc-air batteries are a promising alternative to expensive lithium-ion batteries. Compared with lithium-ion technology, zinc-air batteries have a greater energy density, very low production cost, and superior safety. However, their fundamental inability to recharge has lowered their wide-scale adoption.

Zinc-air batteries use charged zinc particles to store large amounts of electricity at a time. When electricity is required, the charged zinc is combined with oxygen from the air (and water), releasing the stored electricity and producing zincate. This process is known as oxygen reduction reaction (ORR).

Theoretically, this zincate can again be broken down into oxygen and zinc ions by passing electricity through it. This process, in turn, is called oxygen evolution reaction (OER). Using these reactions, zinc-air batteries can be made rechargeable, competing with lithium-ion batteries.

The major challenge of the recharging process is the sluggish kinetics of the reactions which lead to poor cycle life. These batteries require a catalyst that could potentially enhance the ORR and the OER reactions, making their kinetics fast. Hence, the development of highly efficient catalysts is of paramount importance for rechargeable zinc-air batteries.

Previous studies have suggested transition-metal oxides as great bifunctional ORR / OER catalysts because of their ability to provide sites for the reversible adsorption of oxygen. But the methods involved in creating well-defined defects for reversible adsorption of oxygen in such oxides are challenging.

To investigate the use of cobalt(II) oxide nanosheets deposited on stainless steel or carbon cloth as a bifunctional catalyst, a group of researchers from different universities of China and Canada collaborated and conducted several experiments. Their research findings were published in the journal Nano Energy .

Research approach

Preparation of catalyst

Different nano-structures were prepared using simple heat treatment and electrodeposition to test them as bifunctional electrocatalysts. The type of nano-structures prepared were:

      • Cobalt hydroxide  nanosheets on steel and carbon cloth
      • Layered cobalt (II) oxide nanosheet on steel and carbon cloth
      • Cobalt (II) oxide on steel
      • Layered cobalt tetroxide nanosheet on steel

Material Characterization

To understand the characteristics of the prepared samples, various analyticaland tests were carried out:

Charging and discharging tests

Later discharge and charge cycling tests of single cells were operated by the battery testing system.

Results

The simple heat treatment strategy created oxygen vacancy sites. According to the authors, layered cobalt-oxide nano-sheets exhibited excellent bifunctional ORR / OER performance. Investigations suggested abundant oxygen vacancies and cobalt sites be the reason for enhanced ORR / OER performance. Later, the developed layered cobalt-oxide nanosheets on steel were used as an electrode in a rechargeable zinc-air flow battery and a record-breaking cycle life of over 1,000 hours with nearly unchanged voltage was observed. Galvanostatic discharging-charging cycles also demonstrated long life and high energy efficiency.

This research carried out provides a new method to design highly efficient bifunctional ORR / OER catalysts that could be used to enhance the cycle life of rechargeable zinc-air flow batteries. At Frontis Energy we are looking forward to industrial applications.

(Photo: Engineersforum)

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nanoen.2020.105409 Wu et al., Cobalt (II) oxide nanosheets with rich oxygen vacancies as highly efficient bifunctional catalysts for ultra-stable rechargeable Zn-air flow battery, 2021

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Solid oxide fuel cells convert methane gas recovered from groundwater

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are highly efficient energy conversion devices and have low operating costs. They work at a temperature range of 800 to 1,000 degrees Celsius. This allows for the possibility of using internal conversion of hydrocarbon fuels into hydrogen. Methane, methanol, petroleum, and other hydrocarbons can be converted to hydrogen (H2) directly within the fuel cell.

SOFCs have a number of additional advantages over traditional combustion engines or other types of fuel cells. For example, the high exhaust heat (over 800 degrees Celsius) makes them a useful application in the industry for cogeneration of electricity and heat. Because of combined cycles, high efficiency for electricity production can be achieved. In addition, due to the modular nature of SOFCs, they offer flexible planning of power generation capacity. This way, the use of SOFCs results in a further reduction of carbon dioxide emission.

The greatest advantage of SOFCs is that they can be operated with hydrocarbon fuels such as methane (CH4, the main component of natural gas). The direct use of methane eliminates the need for pre-reformers, thus reducing the complexity, size, and cost of the overall SOFC system.

Methane can be recovered from the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills, drinking water treatment plants, etc. The gas can also be recovered from groundwater because of the naturally occurring anaerobic degradation of organic matter in the subsurface or the infiltration of methane from natural gas reservoirs.

A research team from the Delft University of Technology assumed that the gas collected from groundwater treatment can be effectively used as fuel in SOFCs and put their hypothesis to a test. They published their results in the journal Journal of Cleaner Production. Currently, the methane recovered from the Drinking Water Treatment Plant (DWTP) of Spannenburg, Netherlands is either released into the atmosphere or flared, wasting a precious resource and contributing to further greenhouse emission in the form of CO2.

SOFCs provide the cleanest of the viable solutions of converting recovered methane into electrical energy, which, in turn, can be utilized by the DWTP. This process will decrease the power demands and simultaneously reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the DWTP.

The entire process was divided into the following steps:

  1. Methane was recovered from groundwater: The groundwater was pumped from the deep-wells directly to a system of vacuum towers, which remove 90% of the dissolved gas using a near vacuum of 0.2 bar.
  2. Subsequent treatment by plate aeration was done to remove the remaining 10% of methane in the groundwater.
  3. Tower aeration used to further remove CO2 before pellet softening process to lower hardness.

Recovered gas sampling:

200 mL of the recovered gas enriched in methane was used to determine the concentration of CH4, H2, Oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2), carbon monoxide (CO), and CO2.

SOFC set up & thermodynamic approach:

A SOFC test station was used to carry out the experiments. The methane rich gas was fed to the anode and the open circuit potential was logged. Methane must be reformed to hydrogen and CO before electricity can effectively be generated in an SOFC.

Results:

The main components in the sampled gas were methane and CO2 with concentrations of 71 and 23 mol%, respectively. Additionally, the recovered gas contained 9 ppm of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), which can permanently reduce the cell performance of an SOFC. Hydrogen sulphide was effectively removed (<0.1 ppm) with impregnated activated carbon

The use of CH4 recovered from the groundwater in an SOFC helps to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions and improve the sustainability of DWTPs. The recovered methane gas of the Spannenburg DWTP can be used to run a 915 kW SOFC system. This can supply 51.2% of the total electrical power demand of the plant and decreases greenhouse gas emissions by 17.6%, which is around 1794 tons of CO2.

The annual power generation of the SOFC system can be 8 GWh, which is about 3 GWh more than that produced by an internal combustion engine such as a gas turbine or piston engine.

In the future, the researchers will conduct a long-term tests to determine the safe operating condition of SOFC with respect to the carbon deposition issue. These tests will be extended to the SOFC stack level and pilot plant (in the range of a few kW systems)

(Photo: Indiamart)

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.125877 (A solid oxide fuel cell fueled by methane recovered from groundwater, 2021)

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Production of Green Hydrogen through exposure of nano particles to sunlight

The demand for energy is increasing and raw material for the fossil fuel economy is diminishing. Moreover, the emission of gases from fossil fuel usage significantly degrades air quality. The carbon by-products produced from these fossil fuels severely affect the climate.

Hence, there is a need to find a renewable energy resource, that can be produced, stored, and used easily as per requirement. Hydrogen can be a promising energy resource as it is an abundantly available, non-toxic resource, and can be readily used to store excess electrical energy.

Hydrogen when combined with oxygen in a fuel cell produces electricity and the by-products obtained are water and heat. Based on the method of production of hydrogen it is categorized as blue hydrogen and green hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels such as methane, gasoline, coal while green hydrogen is produced from non-fossil fuels / water. The cleanest way to produce eco-friendly hydrogen is via electrolysis of water where water is electrolyzed to separate hydrogen and oxygen. Renewable energy can be used as a power electrolyzer to produce hydrogen from water. Solar driven photo electrochemical (PEC) water splitting is one of the common method used these days. In photo electrochemical (PEC) water splitting, hydrogen is produced from water using sunlight.

PEC cells comprise of a working photoelectrode and a counter electrode. The photoelectrode consists of semiconductor material with a band gap to absorb solar light and generate an electron-hole pair. The photo-generated charges are responsible for the oxidation of water and its reduction into hydrogen. The PEC suffer devices from low stability and efficiency.

The research team from the  Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) along with researchers from the Institute of Chemistry and Processes for Energy, Environment and Health (ICPEES) , a CNRS-University of Strasbourg joint research lab published a way to significantly improve the efficiency of water dissociation to produce hydrogen by the development of sunlight photosensitive-nanostructured electrodes.

A comparative study between cobalt and nickel oxide nanoparticles deposited onto TiO 2 nanotubes prepared through anodization was carried out. The TiO 2 nanotubes were decorated with CoO (cobalt oxide) and NiO (nickel oxide) nanoparticles using the reactive pulsed laser deposition method. The surface loadings of CoO or NiO nanoparticles were controlled by the number of laser ablation pulses. The efficiency of CoO and NiO nanoparticles as co-catalysts for photo-electrochemical water splitting was studied by cyclic voltammetry, under both simulated sunlight and visible light illuminations and by external quantum efficiency measurements

The entire research work was carried out in the following steps:

Catalyzed Green Hydrogen synthesis
Steps followed to improve the efficiency of hydrogen production

(Source: Favet et al ., Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells , 2020)

In this study Cobalt (CoO) and Nickel (NiO) oxides were considered as effective co-catalysts for splitting water molecules. Both co-catalysts improved photo-electrochemical conversion of ultra violet as well visible light photons.

However, CoO nanoparticles were found to be the best co-catalyst under visible light illumination, with a Photo Conversion Efficiency almost 10 times higher than for TiO 2 . The performance of CoO nanoparticles got enhanced in the visible spectral region (λ> 400 nm). The possible reason can be a consequence of their visible bandgap which enables them to harvest more photon in the 400-500 nm range and transferring effectively the photo-generated electrons to TiO 2 nanotubes.

At Frontis Energy we are exited about these new discovery to improve hydrogen production from sunlight and hope to see an industrial application soon.

(Image: Engineersforum)

Reference: Favet et al ., Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells , 2020

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Pilot-scale microbial fuel cells produce electricity from wastewater

In wastewater treatment, aeration is an energy-intensive but necessary process to remove contaminants. Pumps blow air into the wastewater to supply the microbes in the treatment tank with oxygen. In return, these bacteria oxidize organic substances to CO2 and hence remove them from the wastewater. This process is the industrial standard and has proven itself for over a century. If the researchers at Washington State University and the University of Idaho have their way, that is changing now.

In their project, the researchers used a unique microbial fuel cell system they developed to replace aeration. Their novel wastewater treatment system cleans wastewater with the help of microorganisms that produce electricity. These microbes are called electrophiles.

The work should one day lead to less dependence on the energy-intensive treatment processes. Most of the energy in such processes is consumed in the activated sludge and its disposal. The energy consumption in water treatment produces around 4-5% of anthropogenic CO2 worldwide. to put that in perspective, according to the Air Transport Action Group in Geneva, international air transport produced 2.1% CO2 in 2019. The researchers published their work in the journal Bioelectrochemistry. In addition to cutting green house gas emissions, lowering the energy consumption of wastewater treatment would save billions in annual operation and maintenance costs.

Microbial fuel cells allow microbes to convert chemical energy into electricity, much like in a battery. In wastewater treatment, a microbial fuel cell can replace aeration while capturing electrons from wastewater organics. These electrons themselves are in turn a waste product of the microbial metabolism. All living organisms strive to discharge their excess electrons. This process is known as respiration or fermentation. The electricity generated the microbes can be used for useful applications in the wastewater treatment plant itself. The technology kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the treatment of the wastewater saves energy. On the other hand, it also generates electricity.

Up until now, microbial fuel cells have been used experimentally in wastewater treatment systems under ideal conditions, but under real and changing conditions they often fail. Microbial fuel cells lack regulation that controls the potential of anodes and cathodes and thus the cell potential. This can easily lead lead to a system failure. The entire cell must then be replaced.

To tackle this problem, the researchers added an additional reference electrode to the system that enables them to control their fuel cell. The system becomes more flexible. It can either work as a microbial fuel cell on its own and consume no energy, or it can be converted so that less energy is used for aeration while it purifies the wastewater more intensively. Frontis Energy uses a similar control system for its electrolysis reactors.

The system was operated for one year without major issues in the laboratory as well as a pilot in a wastewater treatment plant in Idaho. It removed contaminants at rates comparable to those in a classic aeration tanks. In addition, the microbial fuel cell could possibly be used completely independent of grid power. The researchers hope that one day it could be used in small wastewater treatment plants, such as cleaning livestock farms or in remote areas.

Despite the progress, there are still challenges to be overcome. They are complex systems that are difficult to build. At Frontis Energy we specialize in such systems and can help with piloting and commercialization.

(Photo: Wikipedia / National University of Singapore)

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Rechargeable PEM fuel cell with hydrogen storage polymer

Energy-converting devices such as fuel cells are among the most efficient and clean alternative energy-producing sources. They have the potential to replace fossil-fuel-based power generators. More specifically, proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) are promising energy conversion devices for residential, transportation and portable applications owing to their high power density and efficiency at low operating temperatures (ca. 60–80 °C). For the complete approach, with electrolytic hydrogen renewable sources, PEM fuel cells can become one of the cleanest energy carriers. This is because water is the final product of such energy conversion systems. Currently, Nafion™ membranes are regularly used as hydrogen barriers in these fuel cells.

A Proton exchange membrane

Sufficient hydrogen gas supply is crucial for practical application of the PEMFC systems. Currently, expensive high-pressure tanks (70 MPa) are state-of-the-art for hydrogen storage. Besides cost, there are other drawbacks such as portability and safety. In order to address these issues, alternative hydrogen storage materials have been extensively investigated. For example, metal hydrides and organic hydride materials, can fix and release hydrogen via covalent bonding.

Now, Dr. Junpei Miyake and colleagues of the University of Yamanashi, Japan, have proposed an “all-polymer” rechargeable PEMFC system (RCFC). The work has been published in Nature Communications Chemistry. Their strategy was to apply a hydrogen-storage polymer (HSP) sheet (a solid-state organic hydride) as a hydrogen-storage medium inside the fuel cell. With this approach, the issues like toxicity, flammability and volatility as well as concerns related to other components such as the fuel reservoir, feed pump and vaporizer were solved. The HSP structure is based on fluorenol/fluorenone groups that take over hydrogen-storage functionality.

In order to test the performance of their HSP-based rechargeable fuel cell, the scientists attached the HSP sheet of the membrane electrode to the catalyst layer of the anode. At the same time, the cathode side was operated as in a regular PEMFC. The researchers reported that an iridium catalyst has been applied to the inside of the HSP sheet to improve the hydrogen-releasing and fixing processes.

Fuel cell operation, cycle performance and durability were tested using cycles of 6 periodic steps. At first, hydrogen was infused into HSP sheet for 2 h, followed by nitrogen gas flushing to remove hydrogen from the anode. Then, heating of the cell up to 80°C to initiated hydrogen release from the HSP sheet. Together with oxygen gas supplied to the cathode side the fuel cell produced constant electrical current.

The team demonstrated that their HSP sheet released 20%, 33%, 51%, or 96% of the total fixed hydrogen gas in 20, 30, 60, or 360 min, respectively. The temperature was 80°C in the presence of the iridium catalyst. Also, the iridium catalyst could absorb up to 58 mol% hydrogen, which was considerably lower than that stored in the HSP. The maximum operation time was approximately 10.2 s / mgHSP (ca. 509 s for 50 mg of HSP) at a constant current density of 1 mA / cm2. The RCFCs reached cycleability of least 50 cycles. In addition, the utilization of a gas impermeable sulfonated poly-phenylene membrane (SPP-QP, another type of PEM) turned out to be a good strategy to enhance the opration time of the RCFC.

The advantageous features of the reported RCFC system include better safety, easier handling and lower weight. These are perfect for example in mobile application such as fuel cell vehicles. However, for the improvement of the RCFC performance, hydrogen storage capacity and kinetics (H2-releasing/fixing reactions) as well as catalyst stability need further improvements.

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CO2-neutral traffic

Fossil fuels have made tremendous social and economic advances pssible. This becomes clear, among other things, if you look at the increase in road traffic. Around 90 million vehicles were produced in 2019. In 2000 it was 60 million. It is assumed that the number of vehicles produced by 2030 will grow to 120 million. The increase in road mobility undoubtedly has a positive impact on social mobility and economic growth. However, this also makes the traffic increase a self-accelerating process. Economic growth in the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is particularly crucial in this regard. At the same time, it is expected that the proportion of electric vehicles, including hybrids, will also increase sharply. However, whether this is realistic, given the limited lithium reserves, can again be doubted.

In 2010 more than 1 billion cars were registered worldwide. With an annual increase of around 3%, it was already 1.3 billion in 2019. These emit around 6.0 billion tons of CO2 annually (out of a total of 33 billion tons worldwide), making them the largest expanding source of CO2. Energy-related CO2 emissions are generally continuing to rise, although this increase was briefly interrupted by the global health crisis of 2020. In addition, there are 20 to 30% of emissions from the production of fuels and the manufacture and disposal of vehicles.

Life cycle analyzes of vehicles with different drive concepts are the subject of many studies. When it comes to CO2 emissions, the energy source is crucial. Two main developments are discussed today: the electrification of the propulsion system (i.e. fully and partially electrified vehicles) and the electrification of fuels (i.e. hydrogen and synthetic fuels).

In the manufacture of synthetic fuels, water is broken down into oxygen and hydrogen by electrolysis with renewable electricity. Due to the temporary oversupply of renewable electricity, this energy is particularly cheap. The hydrogen can then be used in hydrogen vehicles propelled by fuel cells. Alternatively, CO2 can be converted into hydrocarbons with hydrogen and then used in conventional combustion engines in a climate-neutral manner. The advantage of fuel cell vehicles is their high efficiency and the low cost of electrolysis. The disadvantage is the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure. Converting from hydrocarbons to hydrogen would cost trillions. The cheaper alternative would be synthetic hydrocarbons. However, the development is still in its infancy and the production of synthetic fuels cannot yet be carried out on a large scale.

Hydrogen and synthetic fuels are a necessary addition to electromobility, especially for long-distance and load transport. The widespread view that the low level of efficiency of internal combustion engines makes these fuels uninteresting ignores the possibility of using them to store and transport energy and to enable climate neutrality for air and shipping traffic. If you compare the CO2 emissions from electric motors and electrified fuels, it becomes clear that these mainly depend on the CO2 pollution of the electricity used.

Synthetic fuel sources

The production of synthetic fuel requires renewable electricity, water and CO2. The technical processes are known. However, the first large-scale industrial plants are only in the planning phase. However, pilot projects such as that of the Canadian company Carbon Engineering have shown the technical feasibility of scaling. The generation costs depend mainly on the size of the plant and the electricity price, which results from the local conditions, the structure of the electricity market and the share of renewable electricity.

The decentralized production of these fuels brings not only climate neutrality but also geopolitical gains. Since CO2 and renewable energy – in contrast to lithium – are generally accessible resources, users of this technology become independent of energy imports. At Frontis Energy we think these are strong arguments in favor of synthetic fuels.

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Accelerated deforestation in the EU

Forests are vital to our society. In the EU, forests make up around 38% of the total land area. They are important carbon sinks as they eliminate around 10% of EU greenhouse gases. Efforts to conserve them are a key part of EU climate targets. However, the increasing demand for forest products poses challenges for sustainable forest management.

According to a report recently published in the renowned science magazine Nature, the EU’s deforested area has increased by 49% and with it the loss of biomass (69%). This is due to large-scale deforestation, which reduces the continent’s carbon absorption capacity and accelerates climate change.

The analyzed a series of very detailed satellite data. The authors of the report show that deforestation occurred primarily on the Iberian Peninsula, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia. Deforestation of forest areas increased by 49% between 2016 and 2018. Satellite images also show that the average area of ​​harvested land across Europe has increased by 34 percent, with potential implications for biodiversity, soil erosion and water regulation.

The accelerating deforestation could thwart the EU’s strategy to combat climate change, which aims in particular to protect forests in the coming years, the experts warn in their study. For this reason, the increasing use of forests is challenging to maintain the existing balance between the demand for wood and the need to preserve these key ecosystems for the environment. Typically, industries such as bioenergy or the paper industry are the driving forces behind deforestation.

The greatest acceleration in deforestation was recorded in Sweden and Finland. In these two countries, more than 50% of the increase in deforestation in Europe has been recorded. Next in line are Spain, Poland, France, Latvia, Portugal and Estonia, which together account for six to 30% of the increase, the study said.

Experts suggest linking deforestation and carbon emissions in model calculations before setting new climate targets. The increase in forest harvest is the result of the recent expansion of global wood markets, as evidenced by economic indicators for forestry, timber bioenergy and international trade. If such a high forest harvest continues, the EU’s vision of forest-based mitigation after 2020 could be compromised. The additional carbon losses from forests would require additional emission reductions in other sectors to achieve climate neutrality.

At Frontis Energy, we find the competition between bioenergy and this important carbon sink particularly disturbing, as both are strategies to mitigate global warming.

(Photo: Picography / Pixabay)

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Light-driven process turns greenhouse gases into valuable products

Much research has been done in order to reduce the use of fossil petroleum products as fuels. In that respect syngas (synthetic gas) seems as a great opportunity for sustainable energy developments. Syngas is the mixture composed of hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO) as its main components. It represents an important chemical feedstock used widely for industrial processes for generating chemicals and fuels:

Global use of syngas in industrial processes.

Syngas can be produced from methane (CH4) in a reforming reaction with water (H2O), oxygen (O2) or carbon dioxide (CO2). The process called methane dry reforming (MDR) can be combined with carbon dioxide:

CH4 + CO2 → 2 H2 + 2 CO

It is an environmentally friendly path, turning two greenhouse gases into a valuable chemical feedstock.

However, the MDR is process requires chemical catalysts and high temperatures in the range between 700 − 1,000°C. Usually, it suffers from coke deposition and, in consequence, catalyst deactivation.

Some chemists have recently demonstrated that light, and not heat, might be a more effective solution for this energy-hungry reaction.

The photocatalytic solution

A team of researchers at the Rice University in Houston, Texas, together with colleagues from Princeton University and the University of California have developed superior light-stimulated catalysts that can efficiently power MDR reactions without any heat input. This work has been published in the prestigious journal Nature Energy.

They have reported a highly efficient and coke-resistant plasmonic photocatalyst containing precisely one ruthenium (Ru) atom for every 99 copper (Cu) atoms. The isolated single-atom of Ru obtained on Cu antenna nanoparticles provides high catalytic activity for the MDR reaction. On the other side, Cu antennas allow strong light adsorption and under illumination and deliver hot electrons to ruthenium atoms. The researchers suggested that both, hot-carrier generation and single-atom structure are essential for excellent catalytic performance in terms of efficiency and coking resistance.

The optimal Cu-Ru ratio have been investigated in synthesized series of CuxRuy catalysts with varying molar ratios of plasmonic metal (Cu) and catalytic metal (Ru), where x,y are atomic percentage of Cu and Ru. Overall, the Cu19.8Ru0.2 was the most promising composition in terms of selectivity, stability and activity. In comparison to pure Cu nanoparticles, the Cu19.8Ru0.2 mix exhibits increased photocatalytic reaction rates (approx. 5.5 times higher) and improved stability with its performance maintained over 20 h period. Calculations showed that isolated Ru-atoms on Cu lower the activation barrier for the methane dehydrogenation step in comparison to pure Cu without promoting undesired coke formation.

In addition, the research has been supported by different methods (CO-DRIFTS with DFT) in order to unravel and prove single-atom Ru structures on Cu nanoparticles occurring in Cu19.9Ru0.1 and Cu19.8Ru0.2 compositions.

The comparison between thermocatalytic and photocatalytic activity at the same surface for MDR has also been demonstrated. The thermocatalytic reaction rate at 726°C (approx. 60 µmol CH4 / g / s) was less than 25% of photocatalytic reaction rate under white-light illumination with no external heat (approx. 275 µmol CH4 / g / s). This enhancement in the activity is attributed to the hot-carrier generated mechanism which is predominant in the photocatalytic MDR. The role of the hot-carrier is an increase in C−H activation rates on Ru as well as improved H2 desorption.

The scientists also reported the catalyst achieving a turnover frequency of 34 mol H2  / mol Ru / s and photocatalytic stability of 50 h under focused white light illumination (19.2 W / cm2) with no external heat.

As the synthesized photocatalysts is primarily based on Cu which is an abundant element, this approach provides a promising, sustainable catalyst operating at low-temperatures for MDR. This allows cheaper syngas production at higher rates, bringing us closer to a clean burning carbon fuel.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Microbial Power-to-Gas in exhausted oilfields as bridge between renewable and fossil energy

An abandoned or unproductive oilfield can be reused for methane production from CO2 using renew­able electrical power. Exhausted oilfields can be reactors for the conversion of renewable energy to natural gas using microbes. To achieve this, an oilfield can be made electrically conductive and catalytically active to produce natural gas from re­newable power sources. The use of natural gas is superior to any battery because of the existing infra­structure, the use in combustion engines, the high energy density and because it can be recycled from CO2. Oil­fields are superior to any on-ground production because of the enormous storage capaci­ties. They are already well explored and these geological formations underwent environmental risk assessments. Lastly, the microbial power-to-gas technology is already available.

Process summary

Whole process (end-to-end via methane)

50% electrical efficiency

Energy density of methane

180 kWh kg1

Storage capacity per oilfield

3 GWh day1

Charge/Discharge cycles

Unlimited

Investment (electrodes, for high densities)

$51,000 MW1

Cost per kWh (>5,000 hours anode lifetime)

<$0.01 kWh1

Electrolyte

Seawater

The Problem

To address the problem of storing renewable energy, batteries have been proposed as a possible so­lution. Lithium ion batteries have a maximum energy storage capacity of 0.3 kWh kg−1. To date, this is consid­ered the best trade-off between cost and efficiency but these batteries are still too inefficient to replace gasoline, which has a capacity of about 13 kWh kg−1. This makes battery driven cars heavier than conventional cars. Lithium air batteries are considered a possible al­ternative because they can reach theoretical capacities of 12 kWh kg−1 but technical difficulties have prevented them from being used for transportation.

In contrast, methane has an energy density of 52 MJ kg−1 corresponding to 180 kWh kg−1 which is sec­ond only to hydrogen with 500 kWh kg−1, not counting in nuclear energy. This high energy den­sity of methane and other hydrocarbons along with their facile usage, is the reason why they are used in combustion and jet engines that drive nearly all transportation to date. While electrical cars seem to be a tempting green alternative, the fact that combustion engines and the fueling infrastructure are so wide-spread makes it difficult to switch.

In addition to the difficulty of changing habits, battery-driven electrical cars need other limited natural resources such as lithium. To equip all 94 million automobiles produced worldwide in 2017, 3 mega tons lithium carbonate would need to be mined annually⁠. This is nearly 10% of the entire recoverable lithium resources of 35 mega tons worldwide. Although lithium and other met­als can be recycled, it is clear that metal based batteries alone will not build the bridge between green en­ergy and tradi­tional ways of transportation due to the low energy densities of metals. And this does not even take into account other energy de­mands such as industrial nitrogen fixation, aviation or heating.

For Germany, with its high proportion of renewable energy, fuel for cars is not the only problem. As re­newable energy is generated in the north, but many energy consumers are in the south, the grid ca­pacity is frequently reached during peak production hours. A steadier energy output can only be ac­complished by decentralizing the production or by en­ergy storage. To decentralize production, home­owners were en­couraged to equip their property with solar panels or wind­mills. As tax incentives phase out, homeowners face the prob­lem of energy storage. The best product for this group of cus­tomers so far are again lithium ion batteries but investment costs of $0.10 kWh−1 are still unattractive espe­cially be­cause these products store the en­ergy as electricity which can only be used for a short time and is less efficient than natural gas when used for heating.

Natural gas is widely used as energy source today and the global energy infrastructure is designed for natural gas and other fossil fuels. Increasing demand and lim­ited resources for these fossil fuels were the main driv­ers of oil and gas prices during the last years, slowed by the recent economic crises and hydraulic fractur­ing (fracking). The high oil price attracted in­vestors to recover oil using techniques that be­come in­creasingly expensive and are environmental risks such as deep-sea drilling or tar sand extraction. Ironically, the high oil price made costly renew­able ener­gies an economically feasible alterna­tive and helped driving down their cost. Since habits are difficult to change and building an entirely new infrastructure only for renewable energies does not seem economically feasible today while CO2 drives global warming, a more realistic solution needs to be found.

Microbial Power-to-Gas could be a bridging technology that integrates renewable energy into the existing fossil fuel in­frastructure. It reaches break even in less than 2 years if certain preconditions are met. This is ac­complished by integrating methane produced from renewable energy into the current oil and gas pro­ducing infrastructure. The principal idea is to use carbon instead of metals as energy carrier because of its high energy density when bound to hydrogen. The benefits are:

  • High energy density of 180 kWh kg−1 methane
  • Low investments due to existing infrastructure (natural gas, oilfield equipment)
  • Carbon is not a limited resource
  • Low CO2 footprint due to CO2 recycling
  • Methane is a transportation fuel
  • Methane is the energy carrier for the Haber-Bosch process
  • Inexpensive catalysts further reduce initial investments
  • Low temperatures due to bio-catalysis
  • No toxic compounds used
  • No additional environmental burden because existing oilfields are reused

The solution

Methane can be synthesized by microbes or chemically. Naturally, methane is produced by anaerobic (oxygen-free) microbial biomass decomposition. The energy for biomass synthesis is provided by sun­light or chemical energy like hydrogen. In the case of methanogens (methane producing microbes), energy is harvested after CO2 and hydrogen were re­leased from biomass de­composition following a 1-to-4 stoichiometry:

CO2 + 4 H2 → CH4 + 2 H2O

Without microbes, methane is produced by the Nobel-prize winning Sabatier reaction and several attempts are currently underway to use it on industrial scale. It is necessary to split water into hydrogen and use this to re­duce CO2 in the gas phase. A major drawback of the Sabatier reaction is the need for high tempera­tures around 385ºC, and a nickel catalyst that becomes quickly spent. Methanogens use iron-nickel enzymes called hydro­genases to harvest energy from hydrogen, but do so at ambient tempera­tures.

To produce abiotic hydrogen, water is split using precious metal catalysts. Microbes split water using hydrogenases in reverse direction and the produced hydro­gen is oxidized by methanogens that grow in the electrolyte or on electrodes to pro­duce methane⁠. This reaction oc­curs at the correct 1-to-4 stoichiometry⁠ at potentials that are near to the theoretical hydro­gen production potential of −410 mV obtained from the Nernst equation in neutral aqueous solu­tions⁠. Methanogenic microorganisms are able to reduce the overpoten­tial.

Power-to-Gas concept for exhausted oilfields. Electrolysis catalyzes water splitting inside the oilfield producing methane gas and O2.

The future challenge will be to accelerate methane production rates as has been reported for a high tem­perature oilfield cul­tures⁠. Besides increasing the temperature, the most obvious solution is to use a higher reactive surface and bringing both electrodes closer together. Using carbon brushes that are poor hydrogen catalysts but provide a higher sur­face for microbial attachment is one possibility. Methane production correlates with microbial cell numbers in the reactors.

The number of methanogens in microbial electrolysis reactors correlates with the electrode surface.

To overcome the problem of expensive carbon (and also steel) brushes for large scale applications,exhausted gas and oilfields could be used. They provide a high surface area and are usually eco­nomic liabili­ties and not assets. Methano­gens inhabit oilfields where they carry out the final step in anaero­bic petroleum degradation⁠. Hence, oilfields can be seen as bioreactors at geological scale. Geological formations provide ideal con­ditions for produc­ing, storing and ex­tracting methane.

Open questions and potential solutions

Oilfield porespace volume

The Californian Summerland oilfield, for instance, has been abandoned and extensively studied in the past. It produced 27 billion barrels of oil and 2.8 billion m3 methane during its lifetime of 90 years. This maximum load of 3.5 billion m3 left the same volume of porespace filled with seawater behind. Only 2% of these pores are larger than 50 µm, which is necessary for microbial growth assuming dimensions of 1 x 2 µm of a methanogen cell. Experiments showed that the resulting 70 million m3 accessible porespace have a storage capacity of 35,000 TW.  That is a lot of methane assuming a solubility of 0.74 kg methane m−3 seawater at 500 m water depth⁠. All German off-shore windfarms together have a capacity of 7,000 MW. Obviously, the limiting factor is not the volumet­ric storage capacity of an oilfield.

Microbial methane production rates

But how fast can microbes produce methane in an hypothetical oilfield? Under optimal conditions, methanogens that grow on electrodes (typically the genus Methanobacterium or Methanobrevibacter) can produce methane at a rate of 100-200 nmol ml−1 day−1 (equals 2.24-4.48 ml l−1 day−1) depending on catalyst and potential. Using a produc­tion rate of 15 J ml−1 day−1 of methane (190 nmol ml−1 day−1), the en­tire microbially accessi­ble oilfield (2%) has a ca­pacity of 3.6 mil­lion MBtu per year. Mi­crobes would theoretical­ly consume 1 TWh per year for 3.6 mil­lion MBtu meth­ane pro­duction if there were no losses and elec­trical power is translate­d into methane 1-to-1. A power genera­tor of 121 MW would be suffi­cient to supply the entire oil­field at these rates. However, all Ger­man off-shore wind­farms produce 7,000 MW mean­ing that only 3% off-peak power can be cap­tured by our ex­ample oilfield. There­fore, the catalytic sur­face and activity must be in­creased to accel­erate methane conversion rates.

Since methanogens produce methane from hydrogen, not only the 2% porespace big enough for cells can be used resulting in an increased catalytic surface to nearly 60%. A hydrogen cata­lyst needs to be found that does not out-pace methanogen growth to keep the reservoir pH within the limits of 6-8 re­quired for methanogen growth. This hydrogen catalyst must be cheap and render an oilfield electrically conductive. A chemical formulation that mimics microbial hydrogen catalysis could be used. It has the potential to turn a non-conductive and non-catalytic oilfield into a con­ductive hydrogen catalyst sufficient to sustain methane produc­tion needed to store all of Germany’s electricity produced by off-shore wind­farms. This catalyst is solu­ble in water when inactive. To become active, it coats mineral surfaces by precipitation that can be triggered by indigenous microbes or by electrical polarization. The investment would be $2.3 mil­lion per MW storage capaci­ty ($16 bil­lion for the entire 7,000 MW). Due to microbial growth, the cat­alytic activity of the system improves dur­ing operation and there is no need for the second component if an immediate production is not crucial. The investments made on the cathode side would then be as low as $600 per MW ($4.2 million for 7,000 MW).

Anodes

As the cathodic side of the reaction can be excluded as limiting factor, the anode needs to be de­signed. Several commercially available anodes such as mixed metal oxides (up to 750 A m−2) with platinum on carbon black or niobium anodes (Pt/C, 5-10 kA m−2) could be used. Anodes based on platinum are the most cost-efficient material available on the market. Invest­ments made for Pt/C (10%, 6 mg cm−2) anodes will amount to $50,000 per MW ($350 million for 7,000 MW). How­ever, the exact amount of Pt needed for the reaction still needs to be evaluated in an experiment be­cause the corrosion rate at 2 V cell voltage is unknown. An often cited value for the life­time of fuel cells is 5,000 hours and is used here to determine the costs per kWh. For 5,000 hours life­time, the costs per kWh will be at the targeted limit of $0.01 but may be well below that because Pt/C anodes can be re­cycled and the Pt load may be reduced to 3 mg cm−2 (5%). Alternatively, steel anodes (SS316, 2.5 kA m−2, $54,000 per MW) can be used but it is unclear when steel anodes fail to elec­trolyze. In conclusion, the anodic side is the cost-driving factor. Hope­fully, better water splitting anodes will lower these costs in future.

Cost estimation summary

Windfarms

Already in place

CO2 injection

Already occurred

Natural gas capturing equipment

Already in place

Microbial seed

Wastewater from oil rig

Cathode costs

$600 MW1

Anode costs

$50,000 MW1

Electrolyte (seawater)

Free

Total (>5,000 hours anode lifespan)

<$0.01 kWh1

Energy and conversion efficiencies

The whole cell voltage for microbial power-to-gas reactions varies from 0.6 to 2.0 V, depending on ca­thodic rates, anodic corrosion and the presence of a membrane. Higher voltages will accelerate an­ode corrosion, again, making anodes the limiting factor. As the voltage decreases, methane production rates become slower but also more efficient. The voltage also depends on the pH of the oil­field. An oil­field that underwent CO2 injection as enhanced recovery method will have a low pH, provid­ing better condi­tions for hydrogen production but not for microbial growth and must be neutralized using seawa­ter. As stated above, the oilfield, being the cathode, is not limiting the the sys­tem. The use of Pt/C an­odes eliminates the overpotential problem on the anode side. Hence, we can assume an ideal system that splits water at 1.23 V. However, the voltage is often 2 V due to anode and cathode overpotentials. Optimized cul­tures and cathodes produce about 190 nmol ml−1 day−1 methane which equals 0.15 J ml−1 day−1 using the energy of combustion of 0.8 MJ mol−1. The same electrolysis cell consumes 0.2 mW at a cell voltage of 2 V which equals 0.17 J ml−1 day−1 and the resulting energy effi­ciency is 91%. The anodes can be simple carbon brushes and the two cham­bers of the cell are separated by a Nafion™ membrane. The system can still be optimized by using Pt/C anodes and by avoiding mem­branes.

The overall electricity-methane-electricity efficiency also depends on the consumption side efficiency where methane is used in com­bustion engines and gas fired power plants. Such power plants fre­quently operate at efficiencies of 40- 60%. Assuming a reasonable power efficiency of 80% (see above), the overall electrical power recov­ery using gas fired power plants will be up to 50%. Besides the high efficiency of gas fired power plants, they are also easy to build and therefore contribute the a better power grid efficiency. Coal fired power plants can be upgraded to gas fired power plants.

Experimental approach

The conversion efficiencies of charge (Coulombs) transported across the circuit are usually between 70-100% in these systems depending on the electrode material⁠. Another efficien­cy limitation could arise from mass transport inhibition. Mass transport can be improved by pump­ing electrolyte adding more costs for pumping which still have to be de­termined. However, since most oil­fields undergo seawater injection for enhanced oil recovery the addi­tional cost may be negligi­ble. The total efficiency has yet to be determined in scale-up experiments and will depend on the fac­tors men­tioned above.

The reactor simulates oilfield conditions using sand as filling material under continuous flow of electrolyte.

Controlling the pH is crucial. Alkaline pHs significantly impede hydrogen pro­duction and therefore methanogenesis. This can be addressed by a software that monitors the pH and adjusts the po­tential accordingly. Addition of acids is not desired as this drives the costs. The software can also act as potentiostat that then fully controls the methane production process. To test the process under more realistic conditions, a drill core from an oilfield must be obtained.

Results show methane production in the simulation reactor. The appearance of methane in the anode compartment was a result of flow from the cathode to the anode, carrying produced methane with it.

Return of investment of the microbial power-to-gas process

The the microbial power-to-gas process in unproductive oilfields is economically superior to all other storage strategies because of the low start-up and operating costs. This is achieved because the ma­jor investments are the installation of oil- and gas production equipment and renewable power plants which are already in place as a precondition. These investments break even in a short amount of time.

But how can the microbial Power-to-Gas process accelerate the return of investment in renewable en­ergy? Only 8 out of 28 active off-shore windfarms reported their investment costs. These 8 produce roughly half the overall power of 1,600 MW corresponding to $7 billion. While the maximum production of an oilfield with unlimited supply of elec­tricity would yield hypothetical 3.6 million MBtu natural gas per year resulting a return of $13 million per year the real production is limited by off-peak power gener­ated by re­newable energy production. Assuming that the maximum annual methane production corresponds to 10% excess electrical power, $15 million per year can by gener­ated by selling 4.3 million MBtu meth­ane per year on the market. These are $15 million that are not lost during off-peak shutdowns. Clearly, this conservative estimate can help to compensate the invest­ment in renewable energy earlier. It also decreases the investment risk because the investment calcu­lations for new wind farms can be made on a more reliable basis.

In the example using all German windfarms (7,000 MW) this compensation roughly doubles. Using the $60 million generated by methane sales per year, the investment of $4 million for the cathodic cata­lyst and the $36 million for the Pt/C anodes are compensated for within less than a year. No other invest­ments are required because the target oilfield already produced oil and gas and all necessary installa­tion are in working condition. The target oilfield is swept using seawater as sec­ondary extraction method. Electrical installations are in place for cathodic protection of production equipment in order to prevent microbial corrosion, which, however, may need to be upgraded to pass the now higher power densities. Moreover, CO2 is used from CO2 injection as tertiary enhanced oil re­covery method. Only the pH may then need to be adjusted to sustain life by sweeping with seawater.

And this is not the end of oilfield storage capacity. In theory, an oilfield can store the entire amount of renewable energy produced in one year globally, allowing more than enough head room for future development and CO2 sequestration.