Among others, the current European energy crisis was caused by a surge in demand after the pandemic, the embargo on Russia, the reluctance of investors to finance fossil energy projects and the throttling of production by the OPEC countries. In this complex situation, European countries are forced to develop alternatives and renewable energy sources. At the same time, however, natural gas is difficult to replace in many industries. One exception is the food and beverage industry, which sits enormous untapped resources of biogas in their wastewater.
Europe is the largest cheese maker in the world. More than 9 million tons of cheese are produced annually. With every ton of cheese, 9 m³ of cheese whey remain. Despite its high nutritional value, whey is often treated like wastewater for various reasons. Yet, the very high organic load in the whey makes it difficult to treat. Wasted whey can also be used for biogas production. In addition to whey, regular wastewater is also produced by cheese makers. For example, a medium-sized cheese factory pays 1.5 million euros a year for its waste water. Reducing these costs by producing biogas would turn dairy industry wastewater into a valuable resource.
This situation is similar in many other food and beverage sectors such as breweries, distilleries, winemakers, bakeries etc. All of these sectors have high energy requirements. Renewable electrical energy cannot meet this need. The market for wastewater treatment in Europe and the US is around 12 billion euros.
Traditional wastewater treatment is a cascaded process including aeration and anaerobic sludge digestion followed by incineration. These methods often consume more than 70% of the energy in a wastewater treatment plant. If contaminants such as high-energy total organic carbon or ammonia were converted into biogas before the process, at least 80% of the energy needed for wastewater treatment could be saved. It is absurd that this energy is removed from the wastewater using even more energy.
An ever-increasing number of sewage treatment plants already recover the resources contained in their wastewater, apart from the water itself. The oldest recivered products are biogas and fertilizers made from sewage sludge. Due to its heavy metal content such as copper and mercury, sewage sludge is no longer used as fertilizer but incinerated.
Biogas is particularly popular in Europe as the produced volumes and prices are high enough to compete with natural gas. Biogas is also a green alternative to natural gas as no additional CO2 is emitted. (Hence, it is often called Renewable Natural Gas in North America.) A disadvantage of classic biogas is the CO2 and sulfide content. Another disadvantage is that anaerobic digestion is the terminal treatment step, wasting valuable wastewater resources in the preceding treatment. Finally, the size and complexity of current digestion requires significant commitment from users when it comes to capital expenditures. Most food manufacturers prefer to focus on making food rather than cleaning their wastewater.
Novel high-performance biogas reactors solve these problems through miniaturization. A 20-fold size reduction is achieved compared to conventional systems. The new technology used was developed in Japan in the early 1990s and is called microbial electrolysis. The electrolysis of wastewater is catalyzed by electroactive microorganisms on the anode (the positive electrode). The reaction products are CO2 (from organic matter) and nitrogen gas (N2 from ammonia).
At the same time, hydrogen gas (H2) is generated at the cathode (the negative electrode). This hydrogen reacts with CO2 to form methane. The final methanation step completes the biocatalytic treatment of the wastewater. Gas grid injection is one possible use. But for cheese makers, the gas would be used on site to generate electricity and/or heat.
The reaction is accelerated using an applied voltage and is based on the laws of thermodynamics. As a result, the reactor volume can be reduced. The size reduction has several advantages. First, it makes biogas accessible in markets where it was previously not possible due to the high investment costs. Second, it enables higher throughput at a lower cost. Smaller units are mobile and can be shared, moved or rented. After all, food manufacturers want to do what they do best, which is to make food.
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, various technologies are in development requiring the separation of mixed gases, such as CO2 and methane or CO2 and nitrogen gas (CO2/CH4 and CO2/N2). Compared to other separation technologies, polymer membranes are good candidates for industrial use. This is due to their low operating costs, high energy efficiency and simple scalability.
The gas permeability and selectivity, as well as the cost of these polymer membranes are the crucial criteria for their industrial use. These criteria are influenced by molecular order processes during polymerization at nano- and micrometer levels. However, the processes regulating the molecular order of most common membranes do not occur on these levels. Hence, there is little control over them during manufacturing. Not much is known about materials with self organizing properties and their influence on molecular order and gas separation.
Chemists at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands examined the effects of the layer distance within the membrane and its halogenation on the gastrunge and published their results in the MDPI Membranes journal. They focused on the separation of helium, CO2 and nitrogen. The researchers used liquid crystal membranes for their investigation. Liquid crystal molecules can align in various nanostructures. These structures vary depending on the manufacturing process and can therefore be controlled. As a result, liquid crystal membranes are ideal in order to investigate the influence of nanostructures on gas separation.
A frequently used manufacturing method is to commence the self organization of the reactive liquid crystal molecules in a cell with spacers. This helps to better control the membrane thickness and alignment and ultimately control the molecular orientation. The final network of the liquid crystal molecules and their fixation in nanostructures is required to achieve mechanical strength. For example, high ordered crystal membranes (i.e. not liquid crystals) have a lower gas permeability. Nonetheless, they also are characterized by a higher selectivity for helium and CO2 compared to nitrogen.
A lamellar morphology and the flow direction of the gas also have a great influence on selectivity and permeability of the membrane. It is also known that halogen atoms such as chlorine or fluorine improve CO2 permeability and selectivity by affecting both gas solubility and diffusion.
In the presented experiments, all liquid crystal membranes with similar chemical compositions, but different halogenated alkyl chains, were aligned. The CO2 sorption and the entire gas permeation were better if their layers were further apart. The gas solubility itself had no impact. This was confirmed by the increased gas diffusion coefficients, which were also determined in the experiments.
Bulky halogens had only limited influence on gas permeability and selectivity. The CO2 permeability of all halogenated liquid crystal membranes increased due to a slightly higher CO2 solubility and diffusion coefficients, which led to improved selectivity for CO2. The layer distance in particular was a crucial factor that directly influenced the diffusion coefficient. The researchers recommended that future investigations should focus on improving separation performance, for example by reducing the membrane thickness.
At Frontis Energy, we are looking forward to a good commercial product that can separate CO2 from gas mixtures, such as biogas, effectively and cheap.
Hazardous compound removal from sewage such as organic matter and nitrogen makes wastewater treatment an energy intensive process. For example, treating activated sludge requires blowing oxygen or air into raw, unsettled sewage. This aeration significantly increases the cost of the wastewater treatment. About 5 kWh per kilogram nitrogen are required for aeration depending on the plant. The cost associated with energy consumption makes uof approximately EUR 500,000 per year in an average European wastewater treatment plant. This is up to one-third of the total operational costs of WWTP. It is therefore obvious that nitrogen removal from wastewater must become more economical.
Alternative approach: Microbial electrochemical technology
The conventional way of removing nitrogen is a cascade of nitrification and denitrification reactions. Nitrification that is, aerobic ammonium oxidation to nitrite and nitrate is carried out by ammonia-oxidizing bacteria. Subsequent denitrification is the reduction of nitrate to nitrogen gas (N2). In addition to the costly aeration process, the remaining intermediate products as nitrite and nitrate require further effluent treatment.
Instead of expensive pumping of oxygen into the wastewater, bioelectrical systems could accomplish the same result at a much lower cost. In such systems, an electron accepting anode is used as electron acceptor for microbial ammonium oxidation instead of oxygen, making aeration obsolete.
The electricity-driven ammonium removal was demonstrated in continuously operated one-liter reactor at a rate of ~5 g / m3 / day. A complex microbial community was identified with nitrifying bacteria like Nitrosomonas as key organism involved anoxic ammonium oxidation.
From an application perspective, comparison between bioelectrical systems and aeration in terms of performance and costs is necessary. The researchers reported that the same removal range and treatment of the similar amounts of nitrogen was achieved but that their bioelectrical system converted almost all ammonium to dinitrogen gas (>97%) without accumulation of intermediates. Their system required about 0.13 kWh per kilogram nitrogen energy at a flow rate of 0.5 L / day. Using a bioelectrical system consumes 35 times less energy compared with classic aeration (~5 kWh per kilogram). At the same time, no hazardous intermediates like nitrite or NOx gases are formed.
The new article also indicated potential clues for microbial degradation pathway that may lead to better understanding of the underlying processes of anoxic ammonium removal in bioelectrical systems.
The proposed nitrogen removal pathway was the bioelectrical oxidation of ammonia to nitrogen monoxide, possibly carried out by a microbe named Achromobacter. That was supposedly followed by the reduction of the nitrogen monoxide to nitrogen gas, a reaction that could have been performed by Denitrasisoma. Alternatively, three other secondary routes were considered: bioelectrical oxidation followed by anammox, or without nitrogen monoxide directly to N2. Some sort of electro-anammox may also be possible.
At Frontis Energy, we believe that the direct conversion of ammonium to nitrogen gas through the reversal of nitrogen fixation is a possibility as nitrogen fixation genes are ubiquitous in the microbial world and it would generate the universal bio-currency ATP rather than consuming it.
It was shown that Achromobacter sp. was the most abundant microbe (up to 60%, according to sequence reads) in the mixed community. However, anammox species (Candidatus Kuenenia and Candidatus Anammoximicrobium) and denitrifying bacteria (Denitratisoma sp.) have been also detected in the reactor.
Two possible electroactive reactions were identified: hydroxylamine and nitrite oxidation, reinforcing the role of the anode as the electron acceptor for ammonium oxidation. Data obtained from nitrite and nitrate tests suggested that both, denitrification and anammox based reactions could take place in the system to close the conversion.
As a result, ammonium was fully oxidized to nitrogen gas without accumulated intermediates. Taking it all together, it has been shown that ammonium can be removed in bioelectrical system operated in continuous flow. However, further reactor and process engineering combined with better understanding of the underlying microbial and electrochemical mechanisms will be needed for process scale up.
Experimental system set-up
The inoculum consisted of a 1:1 mix of biomass obtained from nitritation reactor and an aerobic nitrification reactor of an urban treatment plant
The reactor design was constructed of two 1 L rectangular chambers comprising an anode and cathode compartment
The separator, an anion exchange membrane, was used to minimize the diffusion of ammonium to the cathode compartment
The anode and cathode chambers were filled with granular graphite as electrode support
Ag/AgCl reference electrode was used in the anode compartment
Two graphite rods were placed as current collectors in each chamber
The system was operated in batch and semi-continuous mode
Direct ethanol fuel cells (DEFCs) are fuel cells that run on ethanol to directly produce electrical power. Despite having much to offer they have not been forayed into. Ethanol can be made from biomass by yeasts and its oxidation products – CO2 and H2O – are hence environmentally friendly. The application of DEFCs could be a lucrative solution for vehicles due to the energy efficiency if mass-produced. Our current infrastructure for combustion fuels is ready for ethanol. DEFC usage would therefore be a sustainable and environment-friendly alternative to current internal combustion engines. Moreover, ethanol is liquid, which facilitates distribution, storage and use.
According to studies sponsored by International Energy Agency (IEA), DEFCs deliver high power densities, culminating between 50 to 185 mW / cm2. Currently, DEFCs face multiple challenges such as slow redox kinetics, limited performance, and the high cost of electrocatalysts needed for DEFCs.
In a DEFC, the two key reactions are:
Ethanol Oxidation Reaction (EOR)
Oxygen Reduction Reaction (ORR)
Their sluggish rates have prevented widespread adoption of this technology. State-of-the-art DEFCs require expensive platinum-based materials to catalyze these reactions. Yet, they do not completely oxidize ethanol to CO2 to complete the EOR reaction, limiting the energy efficiency. One way to fix this issue is to separate and re-inject the unreacted ethanol. Since this adds more engineering to the fuel cell, a better solution is to find more efficient catalysts. Hence, to realize the true potential of DEFCs, is to find cheaper and more active catalysts for the two reactions in DEFCs.
The researchers at the University of Central Florida and their colleagues experimented on Pd–N–C catalyst and attempted to improve catalyst performance by introducing fluorine atoms. The team used alkaline membranes and platinum-free catalysts. Not only were these more cost-effective but also produced a high power output.
Previous research on electrocatalytic systems revealed that the local coordination environment (LCE) of the electrode surface is pivotal in tuning the activity of electrocatalysts made of carbon-supported metal nanoparticles. The study showed that introducing fluorine atoms in Pd–N–C catalysts regulated the LCE around the Pd, improving both activity and durability for the two key reactions. This improved the catalytic performance, and ultimately the fuel cell’s performance.
The new study demonstrated that fluorine doping rearranged the electron structure of the fuel cell catalyst. This substantially improved power density and ultimately the performance of the DEFC when compared with present-day benchmark catalysts. The experimental results on long-term stability demonstrated promising advancements towards practical applications of such catalysts in DEFCs.
Upon experimental analysis, it was found that the fluorine atoms in the catalyst weakened carbon-nitrogen bond and pushed the N atoms towards palladium. This electron translocation efficiently regulated the LCE of palladium by forming palladium-nitrogen active sites for catalytic reactions.
The N-rich palladium surface promoted carbon-carbon bond cleavage and enabled complete ethanol oxidation. During the ORR, the N-rich palladium surface surface not only weakened CO2 adsorption but also created more accessible catalytic sites for rapid O2 adsorption.
According to the authors, a commonly occurring problem in DEFCs – the inability to complete the two key reactions – has been resolved. Their catalyst enhanced the overall performance of the fuel cell. The addition of fluorine also enhanced the durability of the catalyst by reducing the corrosion of carbon materials as well as inhibiting palladium migration and aggregation.
When the novel catalyst was tested in a DEFC, an output maximum power density of 0.57 W/cm2 was obtained. The fuel cell was stable for more than 5,900 hours. The proposed strategy, when experimented with using other carbon-supported metal catalysts, also gave improved results in activity and stability.
The main shortcoming of DEFCs running in the alkaline condition is their durability. Currently, it is not sufficient for practical applications. Moreover, the anion-exchange membranes in use have two issues:
Structural stability of membrane is insufficient for long-term use
Carbonation occurs in presence of CO2 due to its reaction with hydroxide ions, ultimately degrading the catalyst.
Albeit stable for remarkable 5,900 hours, the membrane was replaced after 1,200 hours in the presented study. Since replacing membranes require complete disassembly of the cell, this is not a long-term practical solution.
Hence, there must be further research on increasing ionic conductivity and stability of anionic membranes for practical use of DEFC in alkaline conditions. Ideally, the hydroxide solution used to increase ionic conductivity is avoided to preserve energy density and reduce the complexity of the device. Solid oxide fuel cells offer a solution for these problems since the fuel is oxidized in gaseous form but their ceramic membrane are too fragile for mobile applications.
The current experiment makes significant strides in improving power density in DEFCs much more than any state-of-the-art DEFCs. The way ahead is further research to overcome these smaller obstacles in the long-term use of anionic membranes.
Carbon black with abundant oxygen functional groups and melamine (C3H6N6) were mixed and ground, and finally pyrolyzed. After cooling to room temperature, N–C was obtained by washing with ethanol and water. The same method was used to synthesize P–C, S–C, B–C, and F–C from sodium hypophosphite anhydrous, sulfur powder, boric acid, and polyvinylidene difluoride.
Synthesis of hetero-atom fluorine-doped carbon catalysts
N–C and polyvinylidene difluoride were mixed and ground before adding them into a solution of acetone and water. After ultra sound treatment, the mixture was refluxed in an oil bath until fully dried. The mixture was then pyrolyzed and after cooling to room temperature, the samples were washed with ethanol and ultrapure water, followed by a vacuum to obtain the fluorinated catalyst support. The same method was used for the other precursors.
A microwave reduction method was used to synthesize palladium catalyst on the catalyst support. The content of palladium in all samples was kept at 1.0%, which was determined and double-confirmed by X-ray spectroscopy and inductively coupled plasma.
For the electrical measurements, either a glassy carbon ring-disc electrode or rotating ring-disc electrode were used. The Fumasep membrane was used as an anion-exchange membrane, modified to change it to a hydroxide environment.
Chang et al., 2021, Improving Pd–N–C fuel cell electrocatalysts through fluorination-driven rearrangements of local coordination environment. Nature Energy 6, 1144–1153 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-021-00940-4
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.
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.
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.
In our previous blog posts we have discussed resource recovery from waste related to the wastewater treatment and showed improved and enforced regulations have a positive impact on water quality and public health. Now we show that clever catalytic processes can be used to extract valuable commodities from waste agricultural products.
Low-cost waste biomass can serves as renewable source to produce a sustainable alternative to fossil carbon resources in order to meet the need for the environmentally friendly energy. For example, the C2 and C4 ethers derived from carboxylic acids obtained from biomass are promising fuel candidates. It has been reported, that when using ethers biofuel parameters such as ignition quality and sooting have significantly improved compared to commercial petrodiesel (>86% yield sooting index reduction). Ignition quality (cetane number) was improved by more than 56%.
The scientists from National Renewable Energy Laboratory, together with their colleagues from Yale University, Argonne National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are working on a joint project with the goal of co-optimization of fuels and engines. The research focuses on improving fuel economy and vehicle performance while at the same time reducing emissions through identification of blendstock derived from biomass.
In their recent article, published in the renown journal PNAS, a novel molecule, 4-butoxyheptane, has been isolated in a high-yielding catalytic process from lignocellulosic biomass. Due to its high oxygen content, this advantageous blendstock can improve the performance of diesel fuel by reducing the intrinsic sooting tendency of the fuel upon burning.
The research team has reported a “fuel-property-first” approach in order to accelerate the development process of producing suitable oxygenate diesel blendstocks.
This rational approach is based on following steps:
Fuel Property Characterization – includes mapping and identification of accessible oxygenates products; predicting fuel properties of those products a priori by computationally screening
Production process – development of the conversion pathway starting from biomass. Includes continuous, solvent-free synthesis process based on a metal/acid catalyst on a liter-scale production of the chosen compound
Testing and analysis – with the goal to validate and compare fuel property measurements against predictions
Fuel properties of target oxygenates that have been investigated are related to the health- and safety- aspects such as flash point, biodegradation potential, and toxicity/water solubility, as well as market and environmental aspects such as ignition quality (cetane number), viscosity, lower heating value and sooting potential reduction with oxygenated blendstocks. As a result, 4-butoxyheptane, looked as the most promising molecule to blend with and improve traditional diesel. It has been shown, that the fuel property measurements largely agreed with predictive estimations, validating accuracy of the a priori approach for blendstock selection.
The mixture at 20-30% blend of 4-butoxyheptane molecule into diesel fuel has been suggested as favorable. The improvement in autoignition quality as well as significant reduction of yield sooting index from 215 to 173 (20% reduction) demonstrates that the incorporation of this molecule could improve diesel emission properties without sacrificing performance. In terms of flammability, toxicity, and storage stability, the oxygenate fuel has been evaluated to be at low-risk.
Life-cycle analysis show that this mixture could be cost-competitive and have the potential in significant greenhouse gas reductions (by 50 to 271%) in comparison to petrodiesel.
As research is a perpetual process, more of it is necessary and should include testing of the bioblendstock in an actual engine and production of the biofuel in an integrated process directly from biomass.
In our last post on water quality in China, we pointed out a study that shows how improved wastewater treatment has a positive effect on the environment and ultimately on public health. However, wastewater treatment requires sophisticated and costly infrastructure. This is not available everywhere. However, extracting resources from wastewater can offset some of the costs incurred by plant construction and operation. The question is how much of a resource is wastewater.
A recent study published in the journal Natural Resources Forum tries to answer that question. It is the first to estimate how much wastewater all cities on Earth produce each year. The amount is enormous, as the authors say. There are currently 380 billion cubic meters of wastewater per year worldwide. The authors omitted only 5% of urban areas by population.
The most important resources in wastewater are energy, nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, and the water itself. In municipal wastewater treatment plants they come from human excretions. In industry and agriculture they are remnants of the production process. The team calculated how much of the nutrient resources in the municipal wastewater is likely to end up in the global wastewater stream. The researchers come to a total number of 26 million tons per year. That is almost eighty times the weight of the Empire State Building in New York.
If one would recover the entire nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium load, one could theoretically cover 13% of the global fertilizer requirement. The team assumed that the wastewater volume will likely continue to increase, because the world’s population, urbanization and living standards are also increasing. They further estimate that in 2050 there will be almost 50% more wastewater than in 2015. It will be necessary to treat as much as possible and to make greater use of the nutrients in that wastewater! As we pointed out in our previous post, wastewater is more and more causing environmental and public health problems.
There is also energy in wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants industrialized countries have been using them in the form of biogas for a long time. Most wastewater treatment plants ferment sewage sludge in large anaerobic digesters and use them to produce methane. As a result, some plants are now energy self-sufficient.
The authors calculated the energy potential that lies hidden in the wastewater of all cities worldwide. In principle, the energy is sufficient to supply 500 to 600 million average consumers with electricity. The only problems are: wastewater treatment and energy technology are expensive, and therefore hardly used in non-industrialized countries. According to the scientists, this will change. Occasionally, this is already happening.
Singapore is a prominent example. Wastewater is treated there so intensively that it is fed back into the normal water network. In Jordan, the wastewater from the cities of Amman and Zerqa goes to the municipal wastewater treatment plant by gravitation. There, small turbines are installed in the canals, which have been supplying energy ever since their construction. Such projects send out a signals that resource recovery is possible and make wastewater treatment more efficient and less costly.
The Frontis technology is based on microbial electrolysis which combines many of the steps in wastewater treatment plants in one single reactor, recovering nutrients as well as energy.
How do we shape human exploration on Mars to minimize what we must bring with us and to maximize the value and utility of what we bring, and augment it with what is already there?
To provide sufficient fuel for a safe return of the Mars crew, we can produce methane and oxygen on Mars which could be aided by microbes that are brought to Mars. We suggest lightweight perovskite solar panels that may be transported to Mars. In the optimistic scenario, about 18 months are required for the installation of surface solar power and fuel production for the failsafe return after which the crewed mission commences. The pessimistic scenario takes 4 years. To save oxygen, we also suggest Martian perchlorates as rocket fuel component. For later missions’ food supply, we suggest to use lichens as primary colonizers to produce organic rich soil.
Procedure to produce energy on Mars
We suggest the use of in situ Martian resources for the production of methane as ascent and return propellant. Since oxygen generated during electrolysis is not sufficient for a safe return, we also suggest to use algae for the production of oxygen. Algal biomass will be used as soil for food production. Methane producing microbes will be contained in methanogenic electrolysis reactors (MER) while algae will grow in covered craters. The production of methane on Mars is to be carried out autonomously by robots and reactors that will land near the ice-rich polar regions to melt water as electrolyte for low temperature electrolysis. The Mars lander will autonomously construct facilities with the purpose of propellant production to fuel the Mars transfer vehicle which enables transport between Mars surface and Earth orbit. Only when enough propellant for a safe return to Earth has been produced, shall a manned Mars mission begin. Furthermore, methane will be used as energy storage should there be failure of energy collectors such as solar panels. Goal is to erect a 3.5 MW solar power plant on Mars by the end of the first manned mission.
To sustain the life of 6 crew members a power production capacity of 170 kW (see “Surface habitat energy needs”) is required and has highest priority along with fuel production for a safe journey home. The procedure is sketched out in the figure above. It is a stepwise process during which most steps are interdependent and therefore self-accelerating as power production increases. To minimize risk of failure, we recommend at least four independent landers in the circum-polar region of Mars. The polar regions bear the highest surface water content which is crucial for manned explorer missions, methanogenic electrolysis as well as the production of oxygen and biomass. The landers will carry a small nuclear fission device that will begin mining for iron and titanium ores to produce the steel required as structural support for solar panels. First, the lander begins mining for iron ores so that steel production can begin. Graphite or other reduced forms of carbon for steel production will be shipped from Earth because organic matter production on Mars by algae is a slow process. Alternatively, lightweight modular carbon fiber elements to mount solar panels will be brought from Earth to Mars. Once the 170 kW solar plant is established, melting ice for the methanogenic electrolysis reactors (MER) begins. Combined power from the nuclear fission reactor (NFR) and the solar plant will be used. Only when the amount of methane for a failsafe return (Orion capsule size) has been produced, power will be diverted into three equal parts: continue to melt ice for algae, start or continue to mine ores for thermal collectors, continue to produce methane. After enough thermal collectors are produced to pace ice melting with algal growth, electrical ice melting will be shut off. Now, electrical energy is used for steel production to install more solar panels and methane production until sufficient for a comfortable (more payload) return. By this time, the crew is arriving and decides what the highest priorities are. We recommend to focus on accelerating algal growth for oxygen and biomass production as complete independence from Earth requires the production of organic carbon from CO2.
Energy need for the Mars Transfer Vehicle
Fuel produced on Mars will serve 3 purposes:
Failsafe: return of one Orion-sized vehicle
Desired: production of return fuel allowing for less stress (more comfort) during transit
Energy storage at night or power failure
Two options for Mars-Earth return seem possible. (1) Option one was suggested by NASA’s DRA 5.0 and involves one Orion-like vehicle of about 12 tons and a travel speed of 14 km/s. This option requires only one vehicle but provides less comfort for the long journey home and hence, it exposes the crew to higher stress. However, it uses less fuel therefore enables a faster completion of the first Mars mission. (2) We envision a second option that involves two vehicles, one Orion-like lift-off vehicle for transport of 6 crew members into a Mars orbit of 250 km and one transit vehicle to return to Earth. As option two is the preferred option, we recommend to use option one, the Orion-only scenario, as failsafe scenario.
We assume the capacity of a manned Orion capsule with Dragon thrusters (Draco) as reference. The Orion-sized vehicle can carry 6 crew members and has a weight of 12 tons including fuel. For a Mars lift-off, a thrust-mass ratio of at least 5 N/kg will be needed resulting in 60 kN thrust or 150 Draco thrusters to lift 6 crew members. The travel time from Martian surface to a 250 km orbit would be 7 minutes at full thrust. About 600 m3 methane (at Earth atmospheric pressure) would be required for the lift-off. To produce this amount of methane at 210 kW (40 kW nuclear fission and 170 kW solar power, see “Surface habitat energy needs”), 3 years of dedicated fuel production are necessary. The proposed solar power installations of 1,400 m2 perovskite solar cells can produce effectively 170 kW during a Mars day of 8h (that is, 20 kW/m2 can be captured by perovskite panels). Using the same Orion capsule also for the Mars-Earth transit, another 7 minutes or 17,000 km are required to reach the travel speed of 14 km/s and approximately the same for full stop. To produce enough fuel for the Mars-Earth transit, only 3 more days are required. Once enough fuel for the failsafe scenario has been produced, the crew will leave the lower Earth orbit heading for Mars.
For the comfort scenario, we assume the proposed 63-ton crewed payload option from the Mars DRA 5.0 used for Earth-Mars transit. This seems reasonable as most equipment will be left behind on Mars and only the transit habitat, the Orion capsule (for emergencies), engines and fuel are needed. This scenario, however, requires considerably more fuel for which the 210 kW surface power generators must produce methane for at least 42 years. Since this is out of scope, we recommend an extension of the surface power production to 3,500 kW which would reduce the required production of methane to 30 months at 14 km/s travel speed or 12 months at 9 km/s. The reduced stress on the crew justifies the lower travel speed and the higher investment. However, 6.3 tons (corresponding to 0.18 km2) of perovskite solar panels will be required to produce sufficient fuel. About 280 tons of steel are necessary as structural support for this scenario. Since 900 kWh/ton of steel will be consumed for electric smelting, only about one year of steel production using a 40 kW NFR (or 2 months using the full combined 210 kW) justify the increased comfort. The shipment of carbon fiber elements form Earth may completely eliminate the need for steel production in this stage of the mission. The process will be self-accelerating as power production increases during the solar panel assembly process.
To produce methane sufficient for one lift-off, a 200,000 liter MER is required using steel mesh/brush electrodes (anode and cathode) of 2,200 m2 projected surface (see figure below). A modular redundancy system of smaller dimension will improve safety but requires more material. MERs have the theoretical capacity to produce sufficient ascent fuel for one Orion capsule within less than one or two days, if power supply were sufficient. At maximum performance, this reactor would consume about 100 GWh or 220 kWh/mol methane. Microbes will facilitate electrolysis at low temperatures and these microbes will be carried by the Mars lander in small (100 mL) redundant batches. Since the limit for methane production is not the reactor capacity but the electrical power available, doubling the amount of solar panels will half the time required for methane production and so on. To store the so produced methane we recommend to first pressurize water to 200 bar before it is injected into the MER. To extract as from the electrolyte, a small pressure reduction is needed and the so obtained gas phase is then conducted into pressurized steel tanks for later use.
An experimental MER needs to be constructed on Earth to prove this concept. Like the Mars reactor, this experimental MER will be a 5 x 5 m cylindrical reactor of either one or two chambers each. The advantage of the two-chamber system is the separation of oxygen and methane but it requires more water while the single chamber reactor is easier to build and holds less water but O2/CH4 separation is required after production. Unfortunately, the ratio of oxygen to methane is difficult to predict as it depends on the anodic pH. A mass ration greater than 2:1 is required. We therefore propose the use of algae as additional oxygen source (see “Photosynthesis crater to produce oxygen and biomass”). As electrodes brush or spiral steel mesh electrodes will be used. Steel mesh (40 x 40 mesh) produced on Mars will be used having a 1,100 m2 projected surface of each electrode.
Alternative oxidants in cold methane fuel cells or rocket fuel
It is anticipated that oxygen scarcity imposes severe limitations on any manned Mars mission. Oxygen is crucial as propellant and for any human presence. The use of methane for energy storage makes only sense if there is an adequate electron acceptor. While methane can be burnt in turbines at acceptable efficiencies for electricity production, it may also be used in fuel cells. However, no catalysts exist that oxidize methane on electrodes at room temperature or below. The only possible exception are anaerobic methane oxidizing consortia that naturally use biological electron transport chains. The use of biological electron transport chains opens the possibility to capture the energy stored in electrons during transport. Since this is electron acceptor independent, oxidized metal minerals, which are abundant on Mars, can be used as electron acceptors. The disadvantage of this methane fuel cells is that less energy will be captured compared with oxygen. Also, they only exist in theory.
The high acidity on Mars, however, is in favor of reaction, forming additional water from iron oxides and protons using the reductive power of methane. Soluble Fe2+ may be used for electric steel production as the reduction of Fe2+ to Fe0 requires a considerably lower redox potential and therefor lower energy.
Martian perchlorate salts may serve as oxidant in rocket fuel. Ammonium perchlorate and, on Mars, the more prevalent calcium perchlorate are explosive oxidizers. To transform calcium perchlorate into the ammonium salt, ammonium can be produced by a variety of microbial process such as nitrogen fixation (by way of the nitrogenase enzymes) and catabolic ammonification of amino acids or waste urea (by the urease enzyme). Should collection and compression of the photosynthetically derived O2 gas prove impractical for in rocket fuel, our solid oxidizer approach is also submitted. This dual oxidizer strategy will provide for far greater flexibility and more breathable oxygen. Mined perchlorate may also be used to disinfect water.
Photosynthesis crater to produce oxygen and biomass
Oxygenic biophotolysis of water using psychrophilic (cold-loving), dinitrogen fixing cyanobacteria, i.e. blue green algae, grown in covered craters is one proposed plausible means of generating the need for oxygen and biomass. The surplus of oxygen will be required as propellant and component of artificial air in the surface habitat (SHAB). While initially not crucial for a Mars mission, the production of organic matter is useful for more extended missions with larger teams and longer presence. Organic matter is essential for rich soil which, in turn, is pivotal for vegetable food production on Mars. Moreover, cyanobacteria and algae require little engineering and energy which makes them ideal for autonomous production of utility compounds such as organic matter and oxygen.
The amount of damaging cosmic rays and UV can be higher due to the lack of an ozone layer and protective magnetosphere. The amount of cosmic radiation (est. 0.076 Grays per year) is certainly within the tolerable range for many Earthly microbes as it is only around what the interior of the international space station is exposed to. UV light, with its shorter wavelength, can be readily blocked by a thin covering of Martian soil whereas longer wavelengths of photosynthetically active radiation can penetrate further. The microbes will be selectively enriched in their survival zones. Alternatively, a UV protective cover could be used over the crater. The lightweight but durable and robust crater coverings could take the form of an inflatable inverted dome anchored around the crater edge by cables and spikes. The clear upper canopy would admit sunlight but have coating to block harmful radiation while the curved lower surface could be reflective (to maximize photosynthesis) or black to absorb heat. Solar powered gas pumps could adjustably increase the internal gas pressure to accelerate carbon and nitrogen fixation rates and water accumulation from the trace water vapor available.
During the initial surface resource utilization phase (see figure above), the growth of algae is the most time consuming step and therefore the production of liquid water has highest priority. The use of craters will eliminate the need for containers for growing and there reduce the amount of material brought to Mars. Ideally, such craters are equatorial flat water ponds that ensure maximum sunlight capture and minimum water reheating. These preconditions do not align with the initial mission setup (landing near polar ice caps) but should be prepared during the first mission. That is, water pipes from the circum polar regions to the equatorial areas must be constructed. The pipes may need to be heated which requires additional energy or heating the melted water to high temperatures and pressures to prevent ice formation during transport.
Production of water as medium for methanogenic electrolysis and algae
The lack of liquid water is a major hindrance since active metabolism requires a fluid aqueous medium. In addition to the production of methane fuel, melting ice is the greatest challenge for the first manned Mars mission. Liquid water is essential for MERs and algae craters. Hence, all excess of heat or electrical power produced should be directed to melting of ice after methane fuel production is secured. The obtained CO2-rich brine is the electrolyte for MERs. The high acidity is not inhibitory for microbial growth as acidophilicmethanogens and algae were reported from terrestrial environments. Fortunately, the low pH will reduce the electrical overpotential needed for hydrogen generation, which is the intermediate step during methanogenic electrolysis. The low pH, on the other hand, inhibits oxygen formation which is why corrosion of steel anodes is anticipated to become a possible problem. Anode corrosion must be monitored and shall not exceed a certain, yet to be determined, threshold before spent anodes are recycled in steel foundries brought with the first mission.
The low temperatures on Mars that reach only 20°C in equatorial regions also impose a major hurdle on liquid water maintainance. That is, water may need to be heated by parabolic heat collectors to remain liquid. However, Fischer et al. recently found that “when the salts are in contact with water ice, liquid brine forms in minutes, indicating that aqueous solutions could form temporarily where salts and ice coexist on the Martian surface and in the shallow subsurface.” If our crater canopy is fitted with an internally reflective coating in the infrared spectrum small green houses can be created an the brine will remain liquid longer.
The MERs use methanogenic microorganisms for methane production which will be brought to Mars along with algae seeds by the landers. The methanogenic microbes are highly efficient in methane production, resulting in electricity capturing efficiencies close to 100%. Precious metal catalysts are not required. In contrast, for effective oxygen production, platinum or palladium coating may be required on the anodic side of the MERs. Anodic algae appear to be an alternative but need to be further explored. Since the amount of platinum used is very low, it may be transported as salt to Mars and electroplated on steel electrodes once they are ready. Electroplating is an easy procedure so that a robot can accomplish this task within few minutes. However, platinum recycling requires 1-2 days of work of one crew member.
About 280 tons of steel for structural support of solar panels are required (see “Production of steel for structural support of Mars surface components”). The carbon content of steel should not exceed 2.1% to guarantee high stability and therefore we chose 1.5% carbon for Mars steel. That is, about 4 metric tons of carbon are required for steel production. This is the bottleneck of steel production. Assuming cold conditions on Mars comparable to the Antarctic, a good approximation for biomass concentration in brine is 5 mg/m3. At this concentration, nearly 1 billion m3 water need to be processed. While the existing amount of 821,000 km3 would be more than sufficient, it is impossible to melt this amount of ice within the mission’s timeframe using an NFR of 40 kW even if other power sources were counted in. Therefore, parabolic heat collectors could be shipped from Earth as well. At an energetic efficiency of parabolic heat collectors of 80%, 300 tons would be required to melt this amount water within 2 years. Using 10 tons of parabolic collectors, one can melt only 26,000 m3 for algae during 2 years. This is enough to produce 130 g algal carbon in little more than 2 years assuming a constant concentration of 5 mg/m3. It is more efficient to bring 4 tons of graphite to Mars for initial steel production or consider reflecting surfaces other than polished steel.
Alternative use of covered craters to accumulate water using native perchlorates
In light of the considerable difficulties associated with installing long water pipelines to fill craters with water, we outline an elegant alternative strategy for gradually capturing water from the atmosphere using native perchlorates in the Martian sediments.
Halophilic algae tolerate high salt concentrations and low temperatures. Due to the high concentration of CO2 in the native atmosphere the crater covering will amplify the warming effects of this greenhouse gas to prolong the duration of liquid state water needed for nitrogen and carbon fixation. By transporting more soil-derived perchlorates, possibly with crushed water ice deposits, into the covered crater, water can slowly be accumulated. Biologically formed nitrous oxide gas might further accentuate the internal greenhouse warming and thus biological rates of activity.
Perchlorates salts from inside the crater can be recovered from the liquid brine to gradually reduce the salinity of the water. This could be done using parabolic evaporation troughs periodically lifted above the briny surface. Since perchlorates are considered a human toxin, they can be removed by some microbes such as perchlorate reducing bacteria (PRBs) which use percholorates as alternative electron acceptors. Such PRBs could be introduced at a later stage to eventually render the water-filled covered craters non toxic to higher forms of life.
Soil conditioning through phototrophic primary productivity
Lichen and blue green algae have both been used as foods on Earth for hundreds of years. Spirulina is one example of a widely consumed cyanobacterium that uses sunlight to synthesize essential vitamins, antioxidants like beta-carotene and fatty acids from CO2. One major advantage of using a nitrogen fixing cyanobacterium is that they can use solar energy to convert atmospheric nitrogen gas directly into the essential amino acids that future manned missions will need to build and maintain muscle on the Red planet. This will reduce the amount of fuel spent on shuttling food supplies in. Surprisingly, some species of cyanobacteria contain 60% protein per dry gram which is more protein than beefsteak, without the high amount of deleterious cholesterol. Gaseous nitrogen makes up roughly 2.7% of Mars’ thin atmosphere and is available globally. Nitrogen gas is not the only bioavailable form of nitrogen needed to grow oxygenic phototrophs. Nitrates are an ideal fertilizer. The Curiosity rover identified bioavailable nitrates as a significant component of the sediment on Mars. Trace elements are also present in rocks and soil but may require processing.
Production of steel for structural support of Mars surface components
Steel cannot be brought to Mars as there will be at least 2.2 tons of steel necessary for structural support for 1,400 m2 perovskite solar panels. While lightweight carbon fiber modules could be used as structural support, it is possible to produce steel in situ. Steel production on Mars seems an apparent alternative to transport of construction material given the abundance of iron, nickel and titanium on Mars. However, it also requires organic carbon which is to be produced by CO2-fixing algae that grow first in enrichment tanks (transparent plastic bags) and later in covered craters. After dehydrating the algae medium, recycling and reheating it, dry algae pellets will be used as supplement for steel production. The dehydration and reheating process require additional energy which can be provided as heat using parabolic collectors. Parabolic collectors are more efficient in terms of energy capturing and easier to construct as polished steel can be used as opposed to organic Pb/I composites in perovskite solar cells. Steel is then shaped and polished to build parabolic thermal collectors to melt more ice and provide more energy until the NFR and solar panels can be fully replaced by parabolic collectors that can also produce electricity. The production of steel is limited by the amount of organic carbon available. Therefore, we recommend to explore the possibility to use methane gas as reductant and carbon source for steel production. Methane gas production is faster and requires less water resources than algae.
The Mars landers will also mine iron ores and silicates for the production of wires, solar panels and construction materials. Steel will be produced in an induction furnace using iron ores and graphite or organic biomass. Organic biomass from algae tanks will be used for steel production. This organic biomass will also be used for graphite production at a later stage of the mission. Alternative furnace concepts are possible. For example, methane can be used as reductant. Another alternative would be an electric arc furnace or sacrificial graphite electrodes. Graphite can be produced from organic carbon as follows
Organic carbon from CO2 by cold adapted algae
Organic carbon + 800ºC → C
C + SiO2 + 1,400ºC → SiC
SiC + 4,200ºC → graphite
The steel and graphite induction furnaces will be carried by the landers
Energy for initial steel production for the construction of the 170 kW solar plant (see “SHAB energy needs”) is produced by an NFR. A 40 kW reference NFR is recommended. Steel production from iron ore using electric smelting requires 900 kWh per ton of steel. That is, to produce enough structural support for solar panels for 6 people, about 2,000 kWh are necessary or about 3 days of energy production at full performance. This is based on the assumption that steel of 2 mm thickness and 10% of the perovskite area of 1,400 m2 is sufficient. To produce enough structural support for 3.5 MW (0.18 km2) perovskite solar cells needed for the comfortable return option, 280 tons of steel are required. At 50 days of steel production using the entire 210 kW (40 kW NFR + 170 kW solar perovskite life support) are anticipated. To add 1.5% carbon, 4 tons of graphite are necessary which will be carried as cargo from Earth.
Steel is necessary for parabolic heat collectors on site as well. Parabolic heat collectors are required for melting ice for algae growth. The production of steel sufficient for parabolic collectors to melt 1 billion m3 of ice is approximately 600 tons, i.e. 9 additional tons of graphite need to be shipped. To make this amount of steel on Mars another 2 years will be necessary at least. This appears to be the best trade-off between cargo transport and waiting time for a Mars mission but is still an approximation. The algal side product oxygen, also justifies this approach. Since the launch of a manned mission is not dependent on algae production, it is not counted as wait time, which would add another 4 years prior to launch. This shall only demonstrate the feasibility of in situ steel production on Mars. As alternative, the use of methane produced on Mars as carbon and electron source for steel needs to be explored as this may eliminate the need for graphite transport or carbon fiber construction materials are transported to Mars.
Possible perovskite production and reuse of lead produced by the nuclear fission reactor
Lead remnants from the 235U nuclear fission reactor aboard the landers can be used as they are a side product of the radioactive decay of contaminating 238U. There are no confirmed higher concentrations of iodine on Mars and this element needs to be brought in the form of elemental iodine, KI or NaI with the lander to produce the PbI and methyl ammonium iodide. However, since iodine can be replaced by the element chlorine for perovskite production, the initial amount iodine may not need to be replenished because chlorine is an abundant element on Mars.
Solvents required for perovskite cells can be produced in situ using methane gas and acetic acid (also a possible side product of MERs) as precursors as soon as they become available. To bridge the intermediate gap, solvents and organic reactants brought to Mars by the landers may be used. These materials are:
As synthesis of perovskite cells may still be to difficult on Mars, we recommend the transport of these components. As shown below (Surface habitat [SHAB] energy needs), only 9 kg perovskite solar panels will be required. As photo voltaic systems are constantly improved, one can expect better performance and lighter weights in future.
Surface habitat (SHAB) energy needs
The average energy need per capita in the European Union was 150 GJ/year. Although this estimate is likely too high for a permanent colony on Mars we used this as reference herein. A perovskite solar panel operating at 12% efficiency can produce 14 MJ/day/m2 from Mars aphelion 8 hour solar radiation assuming 170 W/m2. That is, 240 m2 methyl ammonium lead halide perovskite solar panels are required to sustain the presence of one person on Mars. This requires 350 g mesoporous TiO2, 370 g Au per capita. The light weight of about 720 g per capita makes a transport of these components from Earth to Mars feasible (8.5 kg total). Mounting the thin solar power collector on a stable steel surface can be achieved on Mars but only if steel is produced in situ. NASA’s Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture recommends a mission of 6 explorers. That is, at about 1,400 m2 perovskite solar panels or 170 kW capacity will be required only to sustain life of one manned explorer mission. Before installation of these panels, steel will have to be produced on which they can be mounted. For the envisioned larger energy needs, 3.5 MW are necessary and for this, about 6.3 tons of perovskite may be shipped to Mars.
Yeasts such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae are, as the name suggests, used for large scale production of beer and other alcoholic beverages. Their high salt and ethanol tolerance not only makes them useful for the production of beverages, but also suitable for the production of combustion fuels at high alcohol concentrations. Besides ethanol, long-chain fusel alcohols are of high interest for biofuel production as well. Bioethanol is already mixed with gasoline and thus improves the CO2 balance of internal combustion engines. This liquid biofuel is made from either starch or lignocellulose. The production and use of bioethanol supports local economies, reduces CO2 emissions and promotes self-sufficiency. The latter is especially important for resource-depleted landlocked countries.
In order to efficiently produce ethanol and other alcohols from lignocellulose hydrolysates, yeasts must use both glucose and pentoses such as xylose and arabinose. This is because biomass is rich in both lignocellulose and thus glucose and xylose. However, this is also the main disadvantage of using Saccharomyces cerevisiae because it does not ferment xylose. Consequently, the identification of another yeast strains capable of fermenting both these sugars could solve the problem. Highly efficient yeasts can be grown in co-cultures with other yeasts capable of lignocellulose fermentation for ethanol production. Such a yeast is, for example, Wickerhamomyces anomalous.
To further improve ethanol production, bioelectric fermentation technology supporting traditional fermentation can be used. The microbial metabolism can thus be controlled electrochemically. There are many benefits of this technology. The fermentation process becomes more selective due to the application of an electrochemical potential. This, in turn, increases the efficiency of sugar utilization. In addition, the use of additives to control the redox equilibrium and the pH is minimized. Ultimately cell growth can be stimulated, further increasing alcohol production.
Such bioelectric reactors are galvanic cells. The electrodes used in such a bioelectric reactor may act as electron acceptors (anodes) or source (cathodes). Such electrochemical changes affect the metabolism and cell regulation as well as the interactions between the yeasts used. Now, a research group from Nepal (a resource-depleted landlocked country) has used new yeast strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Wickerhamomyces anomalous in a bioelectric fermenter to improve ethanol production from biomass. The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Energy Research.
For their study, the researchers chose Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Wickerhamomyces anomalus as both are good ethanol producers. The latter is to be able to convert xylose to ethanol. After the researchers applied a voltage to the bioelectrical system, ethanol production doubled. Both yeasts formed a biofilm on the electrodes, making the system ideal for use as a flow-through system because the microorganisms are not washed out.
The researchers speculated that the increased ethanol production was due to the better conversion of pyruvate to ethanol − the yeast’s central metabolic mechanism. The researchers attributed this to accelerated redox reactions at the anode and cathode. The applied external voltage polarized the ions present in the cytosol, thus facilitating the electron transfer from the cathode. This and the accelerated glucose oxidation probably led to increased ethanol production.
Normally, pyruvate is converted into ethanol in fermentation yeast. External voltage input can control the kinetics of glucose metabolism in Saccharomyces cerevisiae under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Intracellular and transplasmembrane electron transfer systems play an important role in electron transport across the cell membrane. The electron transfer system consists of cytochromes and various redox enzymes, which confer redox activity to the membrane at certain sites.
The authors also found that an increased salt concentration improved conductivity and therefore ethanol production. The increased ethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass may have been also be due to the presence of various natural compounds that promoted yeast growth. When the cellulose acetate membrane was replaced by a Nafion™ membrane, ethanol production also increased. This was perhaps due to improved transport of xylose through the Nafion™ membrane as well as the decrease of the internal resistance. A further increase of ethanol production was observed when the bioelectrical reactor was operated with fine platinum particles coated on the platinum anode and neutral red deposited on the graphite cathode.