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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.

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Nanomaterials in bio-electrical systems could improve performance

Since Professor Potter’s discovery of the ability of microbes to turn organic molecules into electricity using microbial fuel cells (MFC) more than a century ago (Potter MC, 1911, Proc Roy Soc Lond Ser B 84:260–276), much research was done to improve the performance. Unfortunately, this did not not produce an economically viable technology. MFCs never made it out of the professors’ class rooms. This may change now that we have advanced nanomaterials available.

The testing of nanomaterials in bio-electrical systems has experienced a Cambrian explosion. The focus usually was on electrodes, membranes, and in the electrolyte with infinite possibilities to find high performing composites. The benefits of such materials include a large surface area, cost savings, and scalability. All are required to successfully commercialize bio-electrical systems. The large-scale commercial application could be wastewater treatment. In our recently published literature survey we discovered that there is no common benchmark for performance, as it is usual in photovoltaics or for batteries. To normalize our findings, we used dollar per peak power capacity as ($/Wp) as it is standard in photovoltaics. The median cost for air cathodes of MFCs is $4,700 /Wp ($2,800 /m²). Platinum on carbon (Pt/C) and carbon nanofibers are the best performing materials with $500 /Wp (Pt/C $2,800 /m²; nanofibers $2,000 /m²).

We found that carbon-based nanomaterials often deliver performance comparable to Pt/C. While MFCs are still far away from being profitable, microbial electrolysis cells already are. With these new carbon-based nanomaterials, MFCs however, are moving closer to become an economic reality. Graphene and carbon nanotubes are promising materials when they are combined with minerals such as manganese or iron oxides. However, the price of graphene is still too expensive to let MFCs become an economic reality in wastewater treatment. The costs of microbial electrolysis, however, are already so low that it is a serious alternative to traditional wastewater treatment as we show in the featured image above. For high strength wastewater, a treatment plant can in fact turn into a power plant with excess power being offered to surrounding neighborhoods. Reducing the costs of microbial electrolysis is accomplished by using a combination of cheap steel and graphite.

Relationship between MEC reactor capacity and total electrode cost including anode and cathode. Errors are standard deviations of four different tubular reactor designs. Anodes are graphite granules and cathodes are steel pipes

 

Graphite, in turn, is the precursor of graphene, a promising material for MFC electrodes. When graphite flakes are reduced to a few graphene layers, some of the most technologically important properties of the material are greatly improved. These include the overall surface and the elasticity. Graphene is therefore a very thin graphite. Many manufacturers of graphene use this to sell a material that is really just cheap graphite. In the journal Advanced Materials Kauling and colleagues published a systematic study of graphene from sixty manufacturers and find that many high-priced graphene products consist mainly of graphite powder. The study found that less than 10% of the material in most products was graphene. None of the tested products contained more than 50% graphene. Many were heavily contaminated, most likely with chemicals used in the production process. This can often lead to a material having catalytic properties which would not have been observed without contamination, as reported by Wang and Pumera.

There are many methods of producing graphene. One of the simplest is the deposition on a metallic surface, as we describe it in our latest publication:

Single-layer graphene (SLG) and multilayer graphene (MLG) are synthesized by chemical vapor deposition (CVD) from a carbon precursor on catalytic metal surfaces. In a surface-mediated CVD process, the carbon precursor, e.g. Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is decomposed on the metal surface, e.g. Cu or Ni. In order to control the number of graphene layers formed, the solubility of the carbon precursor on the metal catalyst surface must be taken into account. Due to the low solubility of the precursor in Cu, SLG can be formed. It is difficult to grow SLG on the surface of a metal with a high affinity for the precursor.

Protocol:
The protocol is a cheap, safe and simple method for the synthesis of MLG films by CVD in 30-45 minutes in a chemistry lab. A nickel foil is submersed in acetic acid for etching and then transferred to an airtight quartz tube. The same protects the system from ambient oxygen and water vapor. Nitrogen gas is bubbled through the IPA and the resulting IPA saturated gas is passed through the closed system. The exhaust gases are washed in a beaker with a water or a gas wash bottle. The stream is purged for 5 minutes at a rate of about 50 cc/min. As soon as the flame reaches a Meker burner 575-625 °C, it is positioned under the nickel foil, so that sufficient energy for the formation of graphene is available. The flame is extinguished after 5-10 minutes to stop the reaction and to cool the system for 5 minutes. The graphene-coated Ni foil is obtained.

But how thin must graphite flakes be to behave as graphene? A common idea supported by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is that flakes with more than ten graphene layers consist essentially of graphite. Thermodynamics say that each atomic layer in a flake with ten or fewer layers at room temperature behaves as a single graphene crystal. In addition, the stiffness of the graphite flakes increases with the layer thickness, which means that thin graphene flakes are orders of magnitude more elastic than thicker graphite flakes.

Unfortunately, to actually use graphene in bioelectric reactors, you still have to make it yourself. The ingredients can be found in our DIY Shop.

 
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A Durable Aluminum-Air-Battery

Non-rechargeable batteries, which depend on a reaction between aluminum and oxygen, can store significantly more energy than conventional lithium-ion batteries. The biggest limitation of such aluminum-air batteries is their short shelf life. An improved battery design could help eliminate this limitation. Aluminum and air batteries are based on the property of aluminum to corrode, which is also their weak spot:

4 Al + 3 O2 + 6H2O → 4 Al (OH)3

While an aluminum-air battery is not used, its electrodes corrode causing unwanted discharge. This self-discharge drastically shortens the shelf life of the battery. Brandon Hopkins, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and his colleagues developed an aluminum-air battery that uses a conventional electrolyte during operation. When stored, however, the electrolyte is replaced by oil. Their article was recently published in the journal Science.

The new battery reaches a storage capacity of almost 900 Wh / kg. This makes the prototype comparable to other aluminum-air batteries. In contrast, the new corrosion protection extends the storage time 10,000-fold. The authors suggest that such a battery could be used in long-range drones and grid-independent power generation. At Frontis Energy, we believe that batteries with high storage capacity and durability can be used almost anywhere, for example for sensors and other applications.

(Photo: George Hodan)

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An inexpensive scalable multi-channel potentiostat

As our preferred reader, you know already that we work on Power-to-Gas to combat Global Warming. We think that giving CO2 a value will incentivize its recycling and recycling it into fuel turns it into a commodity that everyone needs. While the price of CO2 from air is still too high to convert it into combustion fuel, working on the other end (the CO2 conversion) will help to accommodate such high prices. We have now published an research paper that shows how how to reduce the costs of electronic equipment needed for CO2 conversion. For Power-to-Gas as well es for electrosynthesis of liquid fuels, it is necessary to poise an electrochemical potential. So far, only electronic potentiostats could do that. We have developed a software solution that can control cheap off-the-shelf hardware to accomplish the same goal. Since the software controls µA as well as MA, it is freely scalable. By stacking cheap power supplies, it can also run unlimited channels.

Frontcell© potentiostat setup with two channels. From left to right: digital multimeter (in the back), relay board (in front), two H-type electrolysis cells, power supply, control computer.

We tested the software at a typical experimental Power-to-Gas setup at −800 mV and found that the recorded potential was stable over 10 days. The small electrochemical cells could also be replaced by a larger 7 liter reactor treating real wastewater. The potential was stable as well.

The potential of −800 mV controlled by the Frontcell© potentiostat was stable for 200 ml electrolysis cells (left) as well as for a larger 7 l reactor (right).

As instrument control of mass products also makes the chemical processes involved cheap, microbial electrolysis of wastewater becomes economically feasible. Removal of wastewater organics usually occurs at positive electrochemical potentials. Indeed, the software also stabilizes such potentials at +300 mV.

The Frontcell© potentiostat stabilized a 200 ml electrolysis cells at +300 mV for ten days.

The potentiostat is currently available as command line version. We are currently accepting pre-orders at a 50% discount for the commercial version that comes with a graphical user interface and remote control using an internet browser.

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Ammonia energy storage #1

The ancient, arid landscapes of Australia are not only fertile soil for huge forests and arable land. The sun shines more than in any other country. Strong winds hit the south and west coast. All in all, Australia has a renewable energy capacity of 25 terawatts, one of the highest in the world and about four times higher than the world’s installed power generation capacity. The low population density allows only little energy storage and electricity export is difficult due to the isolated location.

So far, we thought the cheapest way to store large amounts of energy was power-to-gas. But there is another way to produce carbon-free fuel: ammonia. Nitrogen gas and water are enough to make the gas. The conversion of renewable electricity into the high-energy gas, which can also be easily cooled and converted into a liquid fuel, produces a formidable carrier for hydrogen. Either ammonia or hydrogen can be used in fuel cells.

The volumetric energy density of ammonia is almost twice as high than that of liquid hydrogen. At the same time ammonia can be transported and stored easier and faster. Researchers around the world are pursuing the same vision of an “ammonia economy.” In Australia, which has long been exporting coal and natural gas, this is particularly important. This year, Australia’s Renewable Energy Agency is providing 20 million Australian dollars in funding.

Last year, an international consortium announced plans to build a $10 billion combined wind and solar plant. Although most of the 9 terawatts in the project would go through a submarine cable, part of this energy could be used to produce ammonia for long-haul transport. The process could replace the Haber-Bosch process.

Such an ammonia factories are cities of pipes and tanks and are usually situated where natural gas is available. In the Western Australian Pilbara Desert, where ferruginous rocks and the ocean meet, there is such an ammonia city. It is one of the largest and most modern ammonia plants in the world. But at the core, it’s still the same steel reactors that work after the 100 years-old ammonia recipe.

By 1909, nitrogen-fixing bacteria produced most of the ammonia on Earth. In the same year, the German scientist Fritz Haber discovered a reaction that could split the strong chemical bond of the nitrogen, (N2) with the aid of iron catalysts (magnetite) and subsequently bond the atoms with hydrogen to form ammonia. In the large, narrow steel reactors, the reaction produces 250 times the atmospheric pressure. The process was first industrialized by the German chemist Carl Bosch at BASF. It has become more efficient over time. About 60% of the introduced energy is stored in the ammonia bonds. Today, a single plant produces and delivers up to 1 million tons of ammonia per year.

Most of it is used as fertilizer. Plants use nitrogen, which is used to build up proteins and DNA, and ammonia delivers it in a bioavailable form. It is estimated that at least half of the nitrogen in the human body is synthetic ammonia.

Haber-Bosch led to a green revolution, but the process is anything but green. It requires hydrogen gas (H2), which is obtained from pressurized, heated steam from natural gas or coal. Carbon dioxide (CO2) remains behind and accounts for about half of the emissions. The second source material, N2, is recovered from the air. But the pressure needed to fuse hydrogen and nitrogen in the reactors is energy intensive, which in turn means more CO2. The emissions add up: global ammonia production consumes about 2% of energy and produces 1% of our CO2 emissions.

Our microbial electrolysis reactors convert the ammonia directly into methane gas − without the detour via hydrogen. The patent pending process is particularly suitable for removing ammonia from wastewater. Microbes living in wastewater directly oxidize the ammonia dissolved in ammonia and feed the released electrons into an electric circuit. The electricity can be collected directly, but it is more economical to produce methane gas from CO2. Using our technology, part of the CO2 is returned to the carbon cycle and contaminated wastewater is purified:

NH3 + CO2 → N2 + CH4

 

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Fresh CO2 − Now Even Cheaper!

Hurry up while stocks last, you may want to add. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a waste product from the combustion of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal. It is almost worthless because it finds little use. However, technologies such as power-to-gas or electrosynthesis of methanol are able to convert CO2 directly into a valuable, albeit cheap, product. This increases the commercial interest in CO2 and ultimately the filtering from the air becomes economically interesting. That is, filtering CO2 from the air is now more than just an expensive strategy to fight global warming. Recently, a detailed economic analysis has been published in the journal Joule, which suggests that this filter technology could soon become a viable reality.

The study was published by the engineers of the Canadian company Carbon Engineering in Calgary, Canada. Since 2015, the company has been operating a pilot plant for CO2 extraction in British Columbia. This plant − based on a concept called Direct Air Capture (DAC) − formed the foundation for the presented economic analysis. It includes the costs from suppliers of all major components. According to the study, the cost of extracting a ton of CO2 from the air ranges from $94 to $232, depending on a variety of design options. The latest comprehensive analysis of DAC estimated $600 per tonne and was published by the American Physical Society in 2011.

In addition to Carbon Engineering, the Swiss company Climeworks also works on DAC in Zurich. There, the company has launched a commercial pilot that can absorb 900 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year for use in greenhouses. Climeworks has also opened a second plant in Iceland that can capture 50 tonnes of CO2 per year and bury it in subterranean basalt formations. According to Daniel Egger of Climeworks, capturing a ton of CO2 at their Swiss site costs about $600. He expect the number to fall below $100 per ton over the next five to ten years.

Technically, CO2 is dissolved in an alkaline solution of potassium hydroxide which reacts with CO2 to form potassium carbonate. After further processing, this becomes a solid residue of calcium carbonate, which releases the CO2 when heated. The CO2 could then be disposed of underground or used to make synthetic, CO2-neutral fuels. To accomplish this, Carbon Engineering has reduced the cost of its filtration plant to $94 per ton of CO2.

CO2-neutral fuel, from carbon dioxide captured from the air and electrolytic hydrogen.

Assuming, however, that CO2 is sequestered in rock, a price of $100 per ton would translate into 0.2 cent per liter gasoline. Ultimately, the economics of CO2 extraction depend on factors that vary by location, including the price of energy and whether or not a company can access government subsidies or a carbon trading market. But the cost per ton of DAC-CO2 is likely to remain above the real market price of CO2 in the near future. For example, emission certificates in the European Union’s trading system are around €16 per tonne of CO2. If CO2 extraction technology were to gain a foothold in markets where carbon can be sold at DAC price, then DAC would of course become economical. Conversion into useful products product such as plastic or fuel could help to include the DAC premium. Alberta seems a great location because its oil is of low quality and comes at high production costs. Moreover, the size of the DAC plant suggests this is done best in Canada, given the size of the country. Albertans may want to reconsider their business model.

At Frontis Energy, we are excited about this prospect. CO2 is accessible everywhere and DAC is helping us convert it into methane gas. Power-to-gas is perfect for this. However, there would still have something to happen. $100 per ton is already good (compared to $600), but to be able to economically place a product like methane on the market it should be more like $10 per tonne:

CO2 economy of power-to-gas with electrolytic hydrogen. Cal, California, EOR, enhanced oil recovery.

Sure, we always complain, but we still cannot wait to see how the price of DAC continues to fall and wish Carbon Engineering to Climeworks all the best. Keep it up!

(Photos: Carbon Engineering)

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You Can Have the Pie and Eat It

In Paris, humanity has set itself the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C. Most people believe that this will be accompanied by significant sacrifice of quality of life. That is one reason why climate protection is simply rejected by many people, even to the point of outright denial. At Frontis Energy, we think we can protect the climate and live better. The latest study published in Nature Energy by a research group around Arnulf Grubler of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, has now shown that we have good reasons.

The team used computer models to explore the potential of technological trends to reduce energy consumption. Among other things, the researchers said that the use of shared car services will increase and that fossil fuels will give way to solar energy and other forms of renewable energy. Their results show that global energy consumption would decrease by about 40% regardless of population, income, and economic growth. Air pollution and demand for biofuels would also decrease, which would improve health and food supplies.

In contrast to many previous assessments, the group’s findings suggest that humans can limit the temperature rise to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels without resorting to drastic strategies to extract CO2 from the atmosphere later in the century.

Now, one can argue whether shared car services do not cut quality of life. Nevertheless, we think that individual mobility can be maintained while protecting our climate. CO2 recovery for the production of fuels (CO2 recycling that is) is such a possibility. The Power-to-Gas technology is the most advanced version of CO2 recycling and should certainly be considered in future studies. An example of such an assessment of the power-to-gas technology was published by a Swiss research group headed by Frédéric Meylan, who found that the carbon footprint can be neutralized with conventional technology after just a few cycles.

(Picture: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Land of Cockaigne, Wikipedia)

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Cobalt Nanocrystals Make Lithium-Ion Batteries Age More Slowly

In todays Li-ion batteries, cobalt oxide cathodes improve performance and durability. While, such cobalt cathodes show the same performance as nickel oxide cathodes, they come at a higher price. Nickel cathodes, in turn, crack and dissolve quickly, which reduces their lifespan. Nevertheless, nickel cathodes are very popular because they are so cheap.

Now, the research team led by Jaephil Cho of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea has developed a cathode made of more than 80% nickel. The researchers reported in the journal Energy & Environmental Science that a cathode coated with nanocrystals of cobalt aged more slowly than conventional nickel cathodes. After recharging 400 times at room temperature, the battery was able to retain 86% of its original capacity.

The novel nickel cathodes could help meet the growing demand for rechargeable batteries in electric vehicles if cobalt prices rise in the future.

(Photo: Wikipedia)