Much research has been done in order to reduce the use of fossil petroleum products as fuels. In that respect syngas (synthetic gas) seems as a great opportunity for sustainable energy developments. Syngas is the mixture composed of hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO) as its main components. It represents an important chemical feedstock used widely for industrial processes for generating chemicals and fuels:
Syngas can be produced from methane (CH4) in a reforming reaction with water (H2O), oxygen (O2) or carbon dioxide (CO2). The process called methane dry reforming (MDR) can be combined with carbon dioxide:
CH4 + CO2 → 2 H2 + 2 CO
It is an environmentally friendly path, turning two greenhouse gases into a valuable chemical feedstock.
However, the MDR is process requires chemical catalysts and high temperatures in the range between 700 − 1,000°C. Usually, it suffers from coke deposition and, in consequence, catalyst deactivation.
Some chemists have recently demonstrated that light, and not heat, might be a more effective solution for this energy-hungry reaction.
The photocatalytic solution
A team of researchers at the Rice University in Houston, Texas, together with colleagues from Princeton University and the University of California have developed superior light-stimulated catalysts that can efficiently power MDR reactions without any heat input. This work has been published in the prestigious journal Nature Energy.
They have reported a highly efficient and coke-resistant plasmonic photocatalyst containing precisely one ruthenium (Ru) atom for every 99 copper (Cu) atoms. The isolated single-atom of Ru obtained on Cu antenna nanoparticles provides high catalytic activity for the MDR reaction. On the other side, Cu antennas allow strong light adsorption and under illumination and deliver hot electrons to ruthenium atoms. The researchers suggested that both, hot-carrier generation and single-atom structure are essential for excellent catalytic performance in terms of efficiency and coking resistance.
The optimal Cu-Ru ratio have been investigated in synthesized series of CuxRuy catalysts with varying molar ratios of plasmonic metal (Cu) and catalytic metal (Ru), where x,y are atomic percentage of Cu and Ru. Overall, the Cu19.8Ru0.2 was the most promising composition in terms of selectivity, stability and activity. In comparison to pure Cu nanoparticles, the Cu19.8Ru0.2 mix exhibits increased photocatalytic reaction rates (approx. 5.5 times higher) and improved stability with its performance maintained over 20 h period. Calculations showed that isolated Ru-atoms on Cu lower the activation barrier for the methane dehydrogenation step in comparison to pure Cu without promoting undesired coke formation.
In addition, the research has been supported by different methods (CO-DRIFTS with DFT) in order to unravel and prove single-atom Ru structures on Cu nanoparticles occurring in Cu19.9Ru0.1 and Cu19.8Ru0.2 compositions.
The comparison between thermocatalytic and photocatalytic activity at the same surface for MDR has also been demonstrated. The thermocatalytic reaction rate at 726°C (approx. 60 µmol CH4 / g / s) was less than 25% of photocatalytic reaction rate under white-light illumination with no external heat (approx. 275 µmol CH4 / g / s). This enhancement in the activity is attributed to the hot-carrier generated mechanism which is predominant in the photocatalytic MDR. The role of the hot-carrier is an increase in C−H activation rates on Ru as well as improved H2 desorption.
The scientists also reported the catalyst achieving a turnover frequency of 34 mol H2 / mol Ru / s and photocatalytic stability of 50 h under focused white light illumination (19.2 W / cm2) with no external heat.
As the synthesized photocatalysts is primarily based on Cu which is an abundant element, this approach provides a promising, sustainable catalyst operating at low-temperatures for MDR. This allows cheaper syngas production at higher rates, bringing us closer to a clean burning carbon fuel.
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.
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).
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 metabolicstudies 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.
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. Clostridialmetabolism 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.
Most readers of our blog know that waste can be easily converted into energy, such as in biogas plants. Biogas, biohydrogen, and biodiesel are biofuels because they are biologically produced by microorganisms or plants. Biofuel facilities are found worldwide. However, nobody knows exactly where these biofuel plants are located and where they can be operated most economically. This knowledge gap hampers market access for biofuel producers.
At least for the United States − the largest market for biofuels − there is now a map. A research team from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) published a detailed analysis of the potential for waste-to-energy in the US in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.
The group focused on liquid biofuels that can be recovered from sewage sludge using the Fischer-Tropsch process. The industrial process was originally developed in Nazi Germany for coal liquefaction, but can also be used to liquefy other organic materials, such as biomass. The resulting oil is similar to petroleum, but contains small amounts of oxygen and water. A side effect is that nutrients, such as phosphate can be recovered.
The research group coupled the best available information on these organic wastes from their database with computer models to estimate the quantities and the best geographical distribution of the potential production of liquid biofuel. The results suggest that the United States could produce more than 20 billion liters of liquid biofuel per year.
The group also found that the potential for liquid biofuel from sewage sludge from public wastewater treatment plants is 4 billion liters per year. This resource was found to be widespread throughout the country − with a high density of sites on the east cost, as well as in the largest cities. Animal manure has a potential for 10 billion liters of liquid biofuel per year. Especially in the Midwest are the largest untapped resources.
The potential for liquid biofuel from food waste also follows the population density. For metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, New York, etc., the researchers estimate that such waste could produce more than 3 billion liters per year. However, food leftovers also had the lowest conversion efficiency. This is also the biggest criticism of the Fischer-Tropsch process. Plants producing significant quantities of liquid fuel are significantly larger than conventional refineries, consume a lot of energy and produce more CO2 than they save.
Better processes for biomass liquefaction and more efficient use of biomass still remain a challenge for industry and science.