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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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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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High-performance biomass molecule for better Diesel fuel

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:

  1. Fuel Property Characterization – includes mapping and identification of accessible oxygenates products; predicting fuel properties of those products a priori by computationally screening
  2. 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
  3. 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.

(Mima Varničić, 2020, photo: Pixabay)

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Global wastewater resources estimated

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.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Autonomous production of methane on Mars using microbial electrolysis and algal oxygen for a safe return to Earth

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.

Schematic of the fuel production process. Red circles highlight the end products steel (top) and CH4/O2 (bottom). Top: 1, Lander on ice, 2, Nuclear fission reactor (NFR) with heat exchanger to melt ice, 3, mining unit, 4, iron/nickel ores, 5, induction steel foundry with energy supply from the NFR (2), 6, algae enrichment tank with water supply from the NFR (2), 7, crater algae reservoir producing O2 and biomass for 8, dehydrator separating water and 9, biomass pellets, 10, carbon steel for Bottom: 11, solar heat collector melting ice and producing water for 12, microbial electrolysis reactor (MER) producing methane and oxygen collected by 13, degasser, 14, solar panels mounted on carbon steel producing electricity for MER (11), 15, gas storage tank, 16, Mars orbit transfer vehicle fueled by CH4/O2

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.

The composition of Martian soil as analyzed by NASA’s Curiosity and other rovers (Source: NASA 2012)

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.

A detailed description of the reactor can be found here.

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.

(1) CH4 + 2 O2 → HCO3 + H+ + H2O ;∆G°’ = −830 kJ/molCH4

(2) CH4 + 4 Fe2O3 + 15 H+ → HCO3 + 8 Fe2+ + 9 H2O ;∆G°’ = −250 kJ/molCH4

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 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.

Conversion of limited amount of solar energy and frozen water plus copious CO2 into biologically generated oxygen plus organic matter will require a phototroph capable of survival at extremely low temperatures consistent with the Martian surface. We propose to identify terrestrial cyanobacteria capable of this by selectively enriching them from mixed biofilm consortia obtained from the Earth’s Arctic and Antarctic regions⁠. Samples obtained from rocky coastal brines will be subjected to intensive evaluation in selective enrichment freezers outfitted to replicate the polar Martian habitat. The finding that the lichen Pleopsidium chlorophanum (gold cobblestone lichen) can survive⁠, adapt and grow under Martian environmental conditions bodes well for this approach.

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 acidophilic methanogens⁠ 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.

Perchlorate salts have been detected in Martian sediments and craters such as the Dale Crate and at concentrations of 0.5-1% globally. Calcium perchlorate is an extremely hygroscopic component of the Martian soil that was recently discovered to cyclically draw H2O from the Martian atmosphere into the soil by night to form saline liquid brine⁠. By sealing the crater covers by day, when the water normally sublimates off, and then opening in-current or one way valves by night after photosynthetically formed O2 has been recovered, atmospheric water vapor can slowly be accumulated as brine liquid/ice inside of the crater at zero or minimal energetic cost.

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.

Soil conditioning of the Martian landscape initiated by this pioneer mission would be required for subsequent longer term human habitation and colonization. Lichen and cyanobacteria are common pioneer species on Earth that grow in the rocky wake of retreating glaciers. These phototrophs are known to accelerate rock weathering and to facilitate the release of essential minerals. Phosphorous, much like nitrogen, is an important macro-phytonutrient that is now known to be a significant component of the Martian surface. Indeed, some nitrogen fixing cyanobacteria can up-regulate their expression of phosphorous liberating phytase enzymes when exposed to phosphorus limitation⁠. Cyanobacteria also build and stabilize soils by reducing their susceptibility to wind erosion through formation of organic extracellular polysaccharides that help trap and retain moisture. Lichen can also release acids and metabolites that contribute to rock break down and soil formation. While lichens and cyanobacteria may adapt to higher UV light dosages on Mars, they can be protected initially by a thin cover as described in “Photosynthesis crater to produce oxygen and biomass”.

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

  1. Organic carbon from CO2 by cold adapted algae
  2. Organic carbon + 800ºC → C
  3. C + SiO2 + 1,400ºC → SiC
  4. 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:

  • N,N-dimethylformamide (solvent)
  • 2-propanol (solvent)
  • <ethylammonium iodide (reactant)
  • 2,2′,7,7′-tetrakis(N, N-di-p-methoxyphenylamine)-9,9′-spirobifluorene (spiro-MeOTAD, reactant)

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.

Devices included in this chart of the current state of the art have efficiencies that are confirmed by independent, recognized test labs (NREL, AIST, JRC-ESTI, and Fraunhofer-ISE) and are reported on a standardized basis (Source: NREL 2019)

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.

Compounds produced on Mars (purpose in brackets)

  • Iron, Fe0 (steel)
  • Steel (construction, wires, electrodes)
  • Graphite (steel, electrodes)
  • Silicium dioxide, SiO2 (silicon carbide, graphite)
  • Silicon carbide, SiC (graphite)

Compounds brought to Mars (with optional later in situ production):

  • Graphite (for initial steel production)
  • Or carbon fiber elements (for construction without steel)
  • Platinum chloride (for electroplating anodes, alternative to steel)
  • Perovskite solar panels (3.3 tons)
  • Mesoporous titanium dioxide, TiO2 (perovskite solar cells, photon trap)
  • Gold (perovskite solar cells, conductor)
  • Lead iodide (perovskite solar cells)
  • N,N-dimethylformamide (perovskite solar cells, solvent)
  • Methylammonium iodide, CH3NH3I (perovskite solar cells, reactant)
  • 2-propanol (perovskite solar cells, solvent)
  • Hydroiodic acid (perovskite solar cells, reactant)
  • Spiro-MeOTAD (perovskite solar cells, reactant)

(Prof. John Pisciotta of the West Chester University contributed to this article. Image: NASA/Wikipedia)

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Bioelectrically engineered fuel produced by yeasts

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.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells in a brightfield microscopic image of 600-fold magnification (Foto: Amanda Luraschi)

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.

Several yeast cultures from left to right: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Candida utilis, Aureobasidium pullulans, Trichosporum cutaneum, Saccharomycopsis capsularis, Saccharomycopsis lipolytica, Hanseniaspora guilliermondii, Hansenula capsulata, Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, Saccharomyces rouxii, Rhodotorula rubra, Phaffia rhodozyba, Cryptococcus laurentii, Metschnikowia pulcherrima, Rhodotorula pallida

At Frontis Energy, we think that the present study is promising. However, long-chain fusel alcohols should be considered in the future as they are less volatile and better compatible with current internal combustion engines. These can also be easily converted into the corresponding long-chain hydrocarbons.

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Energy storage market in Germany

Germany’s electricity portfolio

In our last posts we introduced electrical energy storage (EES) and the EU market for EES. Now, we focus on some important EU members, beginning with Germany. The country’s electrical energy portfolio reflects its status among the most progressive countries in the world in terms of climate action. As of November 2016, Germany had produced ~35% of its 2016 electricity needs from renewable sources as outlined in the Figure below.

Electricity Production in Germany (Source: Fraunhofer ISE)

The growth of renewable energy has been driven by Germany’s strong energy transition policy – the “Energiewende” – a long-term plan to decarbonize the energy sector. The policy was enacted in late 2010 with ambitious GHG reduction and renewable energy targets for 2050 (80-95% reduction on 1990 GHG levels and 80% renewable-based electricity).
A major part of the 2010 Energiewende policy was the reliance on Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants as a “shoulder fuel” to help facilitate the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. In light of the Fukushima disaster just six months after the enactment of the Energiewende, the German government amended the policy to include an aggressive phase-out of nuclear by 2022 while maintaining the 2050 targets. This has only magnified the importance of clean, reliable electricity from alternative sources like wind and solar.

Existing Energy Storage Facilities

As of late 2016, there is 1,050 MW of installed (non-PHS) energy storage capacity in Germany. The majority of this capacity is made up of electro-mechanical technologies such as flywheels and compressed air energy storage (CAES; see figure below).

Capacities of EES Types in Germany (Source: Sandia National Laboratories)

However, these numbers are somewhat skewed based on the fact that the electro-mechanical category is essentially two large capacity CAES plants. In reality, electro-chemical projects (mainly batteries) are much more prevalent and represent the vast majority of growth in the German storage market. There are currently 11 electro-chemical type energy storage projects under development in Germany and no electro-mechanical projects under development (see figure below).

Number of EES Projects by Type (Sandia National Laboratories)

Services Uses of Energy Storage

As outlined earlier, there are a multitude of service uses for EES technologies. Currently the existing EES fleet in Germany serves grid operations and stability applications (black start, electric supply capacity), and on-site power for critical transmission infrastructure. A breakdown of service uses in the German market is shown below.

Service Uses of Energy Storage Facilities in Germany (Sandia National Laboratories)

Most notable in is the fact that renewables capacity firming only represents 0.3% of EES currently operating in Germany, excluding pumped hydro storage. In order to understand this, it must be noted that Germany is a net exporter of electricity (next figure below). Having one of the most reliable electrical grids in the world and an ideal geographical location give Germany excellent interconnection to a variety of neighboring power markets; making it easy to export any excess electricity.

This “export balancing” is a primary reason why the EES market has not seen similar growth as renewable energy in Germany − it is easy for Germany to export power to balance the system load during periods of peak renewable production. However, there are negative aspects of this energy exporting such as severe overloading of transmission infrastructure in neighboring countries.

Net Exports of Electricity with Average Day-Ahead Market Pricing for Germany in 2015 (Source: Fraunhofer ISE)

Energy Storage Market Outlook

Logic seems to indicate that with aggressive renewable energy targets, a nuclear phase-out, and increased emphasis on energy independence Germany will need to develop more EES capacity. However, many have conjectured that the lagging expansion of EES in the short and medium term will not pose a barrier to the Energiewende. In fact, some claim that EES will not be a necessity in the next 10-20 years. For example, even when Germany reaches its 2020 wind and solar targets (46 GW and 52 GW, respectively), these would generally not exceed 55 GW of supply and nearly all of this power will be consumed domestically in real-time. Thus, no significant support from EES would be required.

The German Institute for Economy Research echos these sentiments and argue that the grid flexibility needed with significant renewable energy capacity could be provided by more cost-effective options like flexible base-load power plants and better demand side management. Additionally, innovations in power-to-heat technologies which would use surplus wind and solar electricity to feed district heating systems present significant opportunity, while creating a new market of energy service companies.


Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure found that P2G is ideally suited for turning excess renewable energy into a diverse product that can be stored for long periods of time and Germany has been the central point for P2G technology development in recent years. There are currently seven P2G projects either operating or under construction in Germany.

While there is work being done, economically feasible production of P2G is currently not achievable due to limited excess electricity and low guaranteed capacity. This limited excess electricity, is an example of the effect of power exports discussed earlier. While there may not be a significant commercial market in the short-term, introduction of P2G for transport could act as an additional driver behind continued renewable energy development in Germany.

In our next post, we cover the energy storage market of the United Kingdom.

(Jon Martin, 2019)

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Cheap, high-octane biofuel discovered

Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a cheap method for producing high-octane gasoline from methanol. They recently published their method in the journal Nature Catalysis. Methanol can be synthesized from CO2 via various routes, as we reported last year. Biomass, such as wood, is one possibility.

The production of biofuels from wood, however, is too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. To find a solution to this problem, the researchers combined their basic research with an economic analysis. The researchers initially aimed at the most expensive part of the process. Thereafter, the researchers found methods to reduce these costs with methanol as an intermediate.

So far, the cost of converting methanol to gasoline or diesel was about $1 per gallon. The researchers have now reached a price of about $0.70 per gallon.

The catalytic conversion of methanol into gasoline is an important research area in the field of CO2 recovery. The traditional method is based on multi-stage processes and high temperatures. It is expensive, producing low quality fuel in small quantities. Thus, it is not competitive with petroleum-based fuels.

Hydrogen deficiency was the initially problem the researcher had to overcome. Hydrogen is the key energy containing element in hydrocarbons. The researchers hypothesized that using the transition metal copper would solve this problem, which it did. They estimated that the copper-infused catalyst resulted in 38% more yield at lower cost.

By facilitating the reintegration of C4 byproducts during the homologation of dimethyl ether, the copper zeolite catalyst enabled this 38% increase in product yield and a 35% reduction in conversion cost compared to conventional zeolite catalysts. Alternatively, C4 by-products were passed to a synthetic kerosene meeting five specifications for a typical jet fuel. Then, the fuel synthesis costs increased slightly. Even though the cost savings are minimal, the resulting product has a higher value.

Apart from the costs, the new process offers users further competitive advantages. For example, companies can compete with ethanol producers for credits for renewable fuels (if the carbon used comes from biogas or household waste). The process is also compatible with existing methanol plants that use natural gas or solid waste to produce syngas.

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Producing liquid bio-electrically engineered fuels from CO2

At Frontis Energy we have spent much thought on how to recycle CO2. While high value products such as polymers for medical applications are more profitable, customer demand for such products is too low to recycle CO2 in volumes required to decarbonize our atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. Biofuel, for example from field crops or algae has long been thought to be the solution. Unfortunately, they require too much arable land. On top of their land use, biochemical pathways are too complex to understand by the human brain. Therefore, we propose a different way to quickly reach the target of decarbonizing our planet. The proce­dure begins with a desired target fuel and suggests a mi­crobial consortium to produce this fuel. In a second step, the consortium will be examined in a bio-electrical system (BES).

CO2 can be used for liquid fuel production via multiple pathways. The end product, long-chain alcohols, can be used either directly as fuel or reduced to hydrocarbons. Shown are examples of high level BEEF pathways using CO2 and electricity as input and methane, acetate, or butanol as output. Subsequent processes are 1, aerobic methane oxida­tion, 2, direct use of methane, 3 heterotrophic phototrophs, 4, acetone-butanol fermentation, 5, heterotrophs, 6, butanol di­rect use, 7, further processing by yeasts

Today’s atmospheric CO2 imbalance is a consequence of fossil carbon combus­tion. This real­ity requires quick and pragmatic solutions if further CO2 accu­mulation is to be prevented. Direct air capture of CO2 is moving closer to economic feasibility, avoid­ing the use of arable land to grow fuel crops. Producing combustible fuel from CO2 is the most promis­ing inter­mediate solution because such fuel integrates seamlessly into existing ur­ban in­frastructure. Biofuels have been ex­plored inten­sively in re­cent years, in particular within the emerging field of syn­thetic biol­ogy. How­ever tempt­ing the application of genetically modified or­ganisms (GMOs) ap­pears, non-GMO technology is easier and faster to im­plement as the re­quired microbial strains al­ready exist. Avoiding GMOs, CO2 can be used in BES to produce C1 fu­els like methane and precursors like formic acid or syngas, as well as C1+ com­pounds like ac­etate, 2-oxybut­yrate, bu­tyrate, ethanol, and butanol. At the same time, BES inte­grate well into urban in­frastructure without the need for arable land. However, except for meth­ane, none of these fuels are readily com­bustible in their pure form. While elec­tromethane is a com­mercially avail­able al­ternative to fossil natu­ral gas, its volumetric energy den­sity of 40-80 MJ/m3 is lower than that of gasoline with 35-45 GJ/m3. This, the necessary technical modifications, and the psychological barrier of tanking a gaseous fuel make methane hard to sell to automobilists. To pro­duce liq­uid fuel, carbon chains need to be elongated with al­cohols or better, hy­drocarbons as fi­nal prod­ucts. To this end, syngas (CO + H2) is theoreti­cally a viable option in the Fischer-Tropsch process. In reality, syngas pre­cursors are ei­ther fossil fu­els (e.g. coal, natural gas, methanol) or biomass. While the for­mer is ob­viously not CO2-neu­tral, the latter com­petes for arable land. The di­rect con­version of CO2 and electrolytic H2 to C1+ fuels, in turn, is catalyzed out by elec­troactive microbes in the dark (see title figure), avoid­ing food crop com­petition for sun-lit land. Unfortunately, little re­search has been under­taken beyond proof of con­cept of few electroactive strains. In stark con­trast, a plethora of metabolic studies in non-BES is avail­able. These studies often pro­pose the use of GMOs or complex or­ganic sub­strates as precur­sors. We propose to systemati­cally identify metabolic strategies for liquid bio-electrically engineered fuel (BEEF) production. The fastest approach should start by screening meta­bolic data­bases using es­tablished methods of metabolic modeling, fol­lowed by high throughput hypothesis testing in BES. Since H2 is the intermediate in bio-electrosynthesis, the most efficient strategy is to focus on CO2 and H2 as di­rect pre­cursors with as few in­termediate steps as pos­sible. Scala­bility and energy effi­ciency, eco­nomic feasibil­ity that is, are pivotal elements.

First, an electrotrophic acetogen produces acetate, which then used by heterotrophic algae in a consecutive step.

The biggest obstacle for BEEF production is lacking knowledge about pathways that use CO2 and electrolytic H2. This gap exists despite metabolic data­bases like KEGG and more recently KBase, making metabolic design and adequate BEEF strain selection a guessing game rather than an educated ap­proach. Nonetheless, metabolic tools were used to model fuel pro­duction in single cell yeasts and various prokaryotes. In spite of their shortcomings, metabolic data­bases were also employed to model species interactions, for example in a photo-het­erotroph consor­tium using software like ModelSEED / KBase (http://mod­, RAVEN / KEGG and COBRA. A first sys­tematic at­tempt for BEEF cul­tures produci­ng acetate demonstrated the usability of KBase for BES. This research was a bottom-up study which mapped ex­isting genomes onto existing BEEF consor­tia. The same tool can also be em­ployed in a top-down ap­proach, starting with the desired fuel to find the re­quired or­ganisms. Some possi­ble BEEF organisms are the following.

Possible pathways for BEEF production involving Clostridium, 3, or heterotrophic phototrophs, 7, further processing by yeasts

Yeasts are among the microorganisms with the greatest potential for liquid biofuel production. Baker’s yeast, (Saccha­romyces cerevisiae) is the most promi­nent exam­ple. While known for ethanol fermentat­ion, yeasts also produce fusel oils such as bu­tane, phenyl, and amyl derivate aldehy­des and alco­hols. Unlike ethanol, which is formed via sugar fer­mentation, fusel oil is syn­thesized in branched-off amino acid pathways followed by alde­hyde reduction. Many en­zymes involved in the re­duction of aldehydes have been identified, with al­cohol dehydro­genases be­ing the most commonly ob­served. The corre­sponding reduc­tion reactions require reduced NADH⁠ but it is not known whether H2 pro­duced on cathodes of BES can be in­volved.
Clostridia, for example Clostridium acetobutylicum and C. carboxidivo­rans, can pro­duce alcohols like butanol, isopropanol, hexanol, and ketones like acetone from complex sub­strates (starch, whey, cel­lulose, etc. ) or from syngas. Clostridial me­tabolism has been clarified some time ago and is dif­ferent from yeast. It does not necessar­ily require com­plex precursors for NAD+ reduction and it was shown that H2, CO, and cath­odes can donate elec­trons for alcohol production. CO2 and H2 were used in a GMO clostridium to produce high titers of isobu­tanol. Typi­cal representa­tives for acetate produc­tion from CO2 and H2 are C. ljungdahlii, C. aceticum, and Butyribac­terium methy­lotrophicum. Sporo­musa sphaeroides pro­duces acetate in BES. Clostridia also dominated mixed cul­ture BESs converting CO2 to butyrate. They are therefore prime targets for low cost biofuel production. Alcohols in clostridia are produced from acetyl-CoA. This reaction is re­versible, al­lowing ac­etate to serve as substrate for biofuel production with extra­cellular en­ergy sup­ply. Then, en­ergy con­servation, ATP syn­thesis that is, can be achieved from ethanol electron bifurca­tion or H2 oxida­tion via respi­ration. While pos­sible in anaero­bic clostridia, it is hitherto unknown whether elec­tron bifurca­tion or res­piration are linked to alcohols or ke­tone synthesis.
Phototrophs like Botryococcus produce C1+ biofuels as well. They synthesize a number of different hydro­carbons including high value alkanes and alkenes as well as terpenes. However, high titers were achieved by only means of ge­netic engineering, which is economically not feasible in many countries due to regulatory constrains. Moreover, aldehyde dehy­dration/deformylation to alkanes or alkenes requires molecular oxygen to be present. Also the olefin path­way of Syne­chococcus depends on molecular oxygen with the cytochrome P450 involved in fatty acid de­carboxylation. The presence of molecular oxygen affects BES performance due to immediate product degrada­tion and unwanted cathodic oxygen reduction. In contrast, our own preliminary experi­ments (see title photo) and a corrosion experi­ment show that algae can live in the dark using electrons from a cath­ode. While the en­zymes in­volved in the production of some algal biofuels are known (such as olefin and alde­hyde de­formylation), it is not known whether these pathways are connected to H2 utilization (perhaps via ferredox­ins). Such a con­nection would be a promising indicator for the possibility of growing hydrocar­bon produc­ing cyanobacteria on cathodes of BES and should be examined in future research.
At Frontis Energy we believe that a number of other microorganisms show potential for BEEF production and these deserve further investi­gation. To avoid GMOs, BES compatible co-cultures must be identified via in silico meta­bolic reconstruc­tion from existing databases. Possible inter-species intermediates are unknown but are prerequisite for suc­cessful BES operation. Finally, a techno-economical assessment of BEEF pro­duction, with and with­out car­bon taxes, and compared with chemical methods, will direct future research.

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Ammonia energy storage #2

Recently, we reported on plans by Australian entrepreneurs and their government to use ammonia (NH3) to store excess wind energy. We proposed converting ammonia and CO2 from wastewater into methane gas (CH4), because it is more stable and easier to transport. The procedure follows the chemical equation:

8 NH3 + 3 CO2 → 4 N2 + 3 CH4 + 6 H2O

Now we have published a scientific article in the online magazine Frontiers in Energy Research where we show that the process is thermodynamically possible and does indeed occur. Methanogenic microbes in anaerobic digester sludge remove the hydrogen (H2) formed by electrolysis from the reaction equilibrium. As a result, the redox potentials of the oxidative (N2/NH3) and the reductive (CO2/CH4) half-reactions come so close that the process becomes spontaneous. It requires a catalyst in the form of wastewater microbes.

Pourbaix diagram of ammonium oxidation, hydrogen formation and CO2 reduction. At pH 7 and higher, the oxidation of ammonium coupled to methanogenesis becomes thermodynamically possible.

To prove our idea, we first searched for the right microbes that could carry out ammonia oxidation. For our experiments in microbial electrolysis cells we used microorganisms from sediments of the Atlantic Ocean off Namibia as starter cultures. Marine sediments are particularly suitable because they are relatively rich in ammonia, free from oxygen (O2) and contain less organic carbon than other ammonia-rich environments. Excluding oxygen is important because it used by ammonia-oxidizing microbes in a process called nitrification:

2 NH3+ + 3 O2 → 2 NO2 + 2 H+ + 2 H2O

Nitrification would have caused an electrochemical short circuit, as the electrons are transferred from the ammonia directly to the oxygen. This would have bypassed the anode (the positive electron accepting electrode) and stored the energy of the ammonia in the water − where it is useless. This is because, anodic water oxidation consumes much more energy than the oxidation of ammonia. In addition, precious metals are often necessary for water oxidation. Without producing oxygen at the anode, we were able to show that the oxidation of ammonium (the dissolved form of ammonia) is coupled to the production of hydrogen.

Oxidation of ammonium to nitrogen gas is coupled to hydrogen production in microbial electrolysis reactors. The applied potentials are +550 mV to +150 mV

It was important that the electrochemical potential at the anode was more negative than the +820 mV required for water oxidation. For this purpose, we used a potentiostat that kept the electrochemical potential constant between +550 mV and +150 mV. At all these potentials, N2 was produced at the anode and H2 at the cathode. Since the only source of electrons in the anode compartment was ammonium, the electrons for hydrogen production could come only from the ammonium oxidation. In addition, ammonium was also the only nitrogen source for the production of N2. As a result, the processes would be coupled.

In the next step, we wanted to show that this process also has a useful application. Nitrogen compounds are often found in wastewater. These compounds consist predominantly of ammonium. Among them are also drugs and their degradation products. At the same time, 1-2% of the energy produced worldwide is consumed in the Haber-Bosch process. In the Haber-Bosch process N2 is extracted from the air to produce nitrogen fertilizer. Another 3% of our energy is then used to remove the same nitrogen from our wastewater. This senseless waste of energy emits 5% of our greenhouse gases. In contrast, wastewater treatment plants could be net energy generators. In fact, a small part of the energy of wastewater has been recovered as biogas for more than a century. During biogas production, organic material from anaerobic digester sludge is decomposed by microbial communities and converted into methane:

H3C−COO + H+ + H2O → CH4 + HCO3 + H+; ∆G°’ = −31 kJ/mol (CH4)

The reaction produces CO2 and methane at a ratio of 1:1. Unfortunately, the CO2 in the biogas makes it almost worthless. As a result, biogas is often flared off, especially in places where natural gas is cheap. The removal of CO2 would greatly enhance the product and can be achieved using CO2 scrubbers. Even more reduced carbon sources can shift the ratio of CO2 to CH4. Nevertheless, CO2 would remain in biogas. Adding hydrogen to anaerobic digesters solves this problem technically. The process is called biogas upgrading. Hydrogen could be produced by electrolysis:

2 H2O → 2 H2 + O2; ∆G°’ = +237 kJ/mol (H2)

Electrolysis of water, however, is expensive and requires higher energy input. The reason is that the electrolysis of water takes place at a relatively high voltage of 1.23 V. One way to get around this is to replace the water by ammonium:

2 NH4+ → N2 + 2 H+ + 3 H2; ∆G°’ = +40 kJ/mol (H2)

With ammonium, the reaction takes place at only 136 mV, which saves the respective amount of energy. Thus, and with suitable catalysts, ammonium could serve as a reducing agent for hydrogen production. Microorganisms in the wastewater could be such catalysts. Moreover, without oxygen, methanogens become active in the wastewater and consume the produced hydrogen:

4 H2 + HCO3 + H+ → CH4 + 3 H2O; ∆G°’ = –34 kJ/mol (H2)

The methanogenic reaction keeps the hydrogen concentration so low (usually below 10 Pa) that the ammonium oxidation proceeds spontaneously, i.e. with energy gain:

8 NH4+ + 3 HCO3 → 4 N2 + 3 CH4 + 5 H+ + 9 H2O; ∆G°’ = −30 kJ/mol (CH4)

This is exactly the reaction described above. Bioelectrical methanogens grow at cathodes and belong to the genus Methanobacterium. Members of this genus thrive at low H2 concentrations.

The low energy gain is due to the small potential difference of ΔEh = +33 mV of CO2 reduction compared to the ammonium oxidation (see Pourbaix diagram above). The energy captured is barely sufficient for ADP phosphorylationG°’ = +31 kJ/mol). In addition, the nitrogen bond energy is innately high, which requires strong oxidants such as O2 (nitrification) or nitrite (anammox) to break them.

Instead of strong oxidizing agents, an anode may provide the activation energy for the ammonium oxidation, for example when poised at +500 mV. However, such positive redox potentials do not occur naturally in anaerobic environments. Therefore, we tested whether the ammonium oxidation can be coupled to the hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis by offering a positive electrode potential without O2. Indeed, we demonstrated this in our article and have filed a patent application. With our method one could, for example, profitably remove ammonia from industrial wastewater. It is also suitable for energy storage when e.g. Ammonia synthesized using excess wind energy.