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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.

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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An inexpensive scalable multi-channel potentiostat

As our preferred reader, you know already what 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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A Graphene Membrane Becomes a Nano-Scale Water Gate

Biological systems can control water flow using channels in their membranes. This has many advantages, for example when cells need to regulate their osmotic pressure. Also artificial systems, e.g. in water treatment or in electrochemical cells, could benefit from it. Now, a group of materials researchers behind Dr. Zhou at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom have developed a membrane that can electrically switch the flow of water.

As the researchers reported in the journal Nature, a sandwiched membrane of silver, graphene, and gold was fabricated. At a voltage of more than 2 V channels it opens its pores and water is immediately channeled through the membrane. The effect is reversible. To do this, the researchers used the property of graphene to form a tunable filter or even a perfect barrier to liquids and gases. New ‘smart’ membranes, developed using a low-cost form of graphene called graphene oxide, allow precise control of water flow by using an electrical current. The membranes can even be used to completely block water when needed.

To produce the membrane, the research group has embedded conductive filaments in the electrically insulating graphene oxide membrane. An electric current passed through these nanofilaments created a large electric field that ionizes the water molecules and thus controls the water transport through the graphene capillaries in the membrane.

At Frontis Energy we are excited about this new technology and can imagine numerous applications. This research makes it possible to precisely control water permeation from ultrafast flow-through to complete shut-off. The development of such smart membranes controlled by external stimuli would be of great interest to many areas of business and research alike. These membranes could, for instance, find application in electrolysis cells or in medicine. For medical applications, artificial biological systems, such as tissue grafts, enable a plenty of medical applications.

However, the delicate material consisting of graphene, gold, and silver nano-layers is still too expensive and not as resistant as our Nafion™ membranes. But unlike Nafion™ you can tune them. We stay tuned to see what is coming next.

(Illustration: University of Manchester)

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Starting up Power-to-Gas Reactors

In their paper “Effect of Start-Up Strategies and Electrode Materials on Carbon Dioxide Reduction on Biocathodes“, which was recently published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Saheb-Alam et al. teach us how to start-up bio-electrical systems for CO2 conversion to methane gas. They compared pre-acclimated with pristine electrodes and found that there is no difference in start-up time. Their findings stand in contrast to previous observations where pre-acclimation has indeed helped to improve reactor performance. For example, LaBarge et al. found that electrodes acclimated with methane-forming microbes, called Methanobacterium, do reduce start-up time.