In the order to address the global need for renewable and clean energy sources, salinity-gradient energy harvested by reverse electrodialysis (RED) is attracting significant interest in recent years. In addition, brine solution coming from seawater desalination is currently considered as a waste; however thanks to its high salinity it can be exploited as a valuable resource to feed RED. RED is an engineered adaptation of nature’s osmotic energy production where ions flow pass the cell membrane in order to produce the universal biological currency ATP. This energy is also harvested by the RED technology.
Now, more than ever there is need for sustainable and environmentally friendly technological solutions in order to keep up with ever growing demand for clean water and energy. The traditional linear way “produce and throw away” does no longer serve the society anymore and the new approach of circular economy has take a place, where any waste can be considered as a valuable resource for another process. In this respect, reverse electrodialysis is a promising electromembrane-based technology to generate power from concentrated solutions by harvesting the Gibbs free energy of mixing the solutions with different salinity. In particular, brine solutions produced in desalination plants, which is currently considered as a waste, can be used as concentrated streams in RED stack.
Avci et al. of the University of Calabria, Italy, have recently published their solution for brine disposal using RED-stack. They have realized that in order to maximize generated power, the high permselectivity and ion conductivity of membrane components in RED are essential. Although Nafion™ membranes are among the most prominent commercial cation exchange membrane solutions for electrochemical applications, no study has been done in its utilization toward RED processes. This was the first reported RED stack using Nafion™ membranes.
A typical RED unit is similar to an electrodialysis (ED) unit, which is a commercialized technology. ED uses a feed solution and the electrical energy, while producing concentrate and dilute, separately. On the other side, RED uses concentrated and dilute solutions that are mixed together in a controlled manner in order to produce spontaneously electrical energy. In a RED stack, repeating cells comprised of alternating cation and anion exchange membranes that are selective for anions and cations. The salinity gradient over each ion exchange membrane creates a voltage difference which is the driving force for the process. The ion exchange membranes are one of the most important components of a RED stack.
The performance of Nafion™ membranes (Nafion™ 117 and Nafion™ 115) have been evaluated under a high salinity gradient conditions for the possible application in RED. In order to simulate the natural environments of RED operation, NaCl solution as well as multicomponent NaCl + MgCl2 have been tested.
Gross power density under high salinity gradient and the effect of Mg2+ on the efficiency in energy conversion have been evaluated in single cell RED using Nafion™ 117, Nafion™ 115, CMX and Fuji-CEM-80050 as cation exchange membranes. Two commercial cation exchange membranes – CMX and Fuji-CEM 80050, frequently used for RED applications, have served as benchmark.
The results show that under the condition of 0.5 M / 4.0 M NaCl solutions, the highest Pd,max was achieved using Nafion™ membrane. This result is attributed to their outstanding permselectivity compared to other CEMs. In the presence of Mg2+ ions, Pd,max reduction of 17 and 20% for Nafion™ 115 and Nafion™ 117 were recorded, respectively. Both membranes maintained their low resistance; however a loss in permselectivity was measured under this condition. Even though, it was reported that Nafion™ membranes outperformed other commercial membranes such as CMX and Fuji-CEM-80050 for RED application.
An abandoned or unproductive oilfield can be reused for methane production from CO2 using renewable electrical power. Exhausted oilfields can be reactors for the conversion of renewable energy to natural gas using microbes. To achieve this, an oilfield can be made electrically conductive and catalytically active to produce natural gas from renewable power sources. The use of natural gas is superior to any battery because of the existing infrastructure, the use in combustion engines, the high energy density and because it can be recycled from CO2. Oilfields are superior to any on-ground production because of the enormous storage capacities. They are already well explored and these geological formations underwent environmental risk assessments. Lastly, the microbial power-to-gas technology is already available.
Whole process (end-to-end via methane)
50% electrical efficiency
Energy density of methane
180 kWh kg−1
Storage capacity per oilfield
3 GWh day−1
Investment (electrodes, for high densities)
Cost per kWh (>5,000 hours anode lifetime)
To address the problem of storing renewable energy, batteries have been proposed as a possible solution. Lithium ion batteries have a maximum energy storage capacity of 0.3 kWh kg−1. To date, this is considered the best trade-off between cost and efficiency but these batteries are still too inefficient to replace gasoline, which has a capacity of about 13 kWh kg−1. This makes battery driven cars heavier than conventional cars. Lithium air batteries are considered a possible alternative because they can reach theoretical capacities of 12 kWh kg−1 but technical difficulties have prevented them from being used for transportation.
In contrast, methane has an energy density of 52 MJ kg−1 corresponding to 180 kWh kg−1 which is second only to hydrogen with 500 kWh kg−1, not counting in nuclear energy. This high energy density of methane and other hydrocarbons along with their facile usage, is the reason why they are used in combustion and jet engines that drive nearly all transportation to date. While electrical cars seem to be a tempting green alternative, the fact that combustion engines and the fueling infrastructure are so wide-spread makes it difficult to switch.
In addition to the difficulty of changing habits, battery-driven electrical cars need other limited natural resources such as lithium. To equip all 94 million automobiles produced worldwide in 2017, 3 mega tons lithium carbonate would need to be mined annually. This is nearly 10% of the entire recoverable lithium resources of 35 mega tons worldwide. Although lithium and other metals can be recycled, it is clear that metal based batteries alone will not build the bridge between green energy and traditional ways of transportation due to the low energy densities of metals. And this does not even take into account other energy demands such as industrial nitrogen fixation, aviation or heating.
For Germany, with its high proportion of renewable energy, fuel for cars is not the only problem. As renewable energy is generated in the north, but many energy consumers are in the south, the grid capacity is frequently reached during peak production hours. A steadier energy output can only be accomplished by decentralizing the production or by energy storage. To decentralize production, homeowners were encouraged to equip their property with solar panels or windmills. As tax incentives phase out, homeowners face the problem of energy storage. The best product for this group of customers so far are again lithium ion batteries but investment costs of $0.10 kWh−1 are still unattractive especially because these products store the energy as electricity which can only be used for a short time and is less efficient than natural gas when used for heating.
Natural gas is widely used as energy source today and the global energy infrastructure is designed for natural gas and other fossil fuels. Increasing demand and limited resources for these fossil fuels were the main drivers of oil and gas prices during the last years, slowed by the recent economic crises and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The high oil price attracted investors to recover oil using techniques that become increasingly expensive and are environmental risks such as deep-sea drilling or tar sand extraction. Ironically, the high oil price made costly renewable energies an economically feasible alternative and helped driving down their cost. Since habits are difficult to change and building an entirely new infrastructure only for renewable energies does not seem economically feasible today while CO2 drives global warming, a more realistic solution needs to be found.
Microbial Power-to-Gas could be a bridging technology that integrates renewable energy into the existing fossil fuel infrastructure. It reaches break even in less than 2 years if certain preconditions are met. This is accomplished by integrating methane produced from renewable energy into the current oil and gas producing infrastructure. The principal idea is to use carbon instead of metals as energy carrier because of its high energy density when bound to hydrogen. The benefits are:
High energy density of 180 kWh kg−1 methane
Low investments due to existing infrastructure (natural gas, oilfield equipment)
Carbon is not a limited resource
Low CO2 footprint due to CO2 recycling
Methane is a transportation fuel
Methane is the energy carrier for the Haber-Bosch process
Inexpensive catalysts further reduce initial investments
Low temperatures due to bio-catalysis
No toxic compounds used
No additional environmental burden because existing oilfields are reused
Methane can be synthesized by microbes or chemically. Naturally, methane is produced by anaerobic (oxygen-free) microbial biomass decomposition. The energy for biomass synthesis is provided by sunlight or chemical energy like hydrogen. In the case of methanogens (methane producing microbes), energy is harvested after CO2 and hydrogen were released from biomass decomposition following a 1-to-4 stoichiometry:
CO2 + 4 H2 → CH4 + 2 H2O
Without microbes, methane is produced by the Nobel-prize winning Sabatier reaction and several attempts are currently underway to use it on industrial scale. It is necessary to split water into hydrogen and use this to reduce CO2 in the gas phase. A major drawback of the Sabatier reaction is the need for high temperatures around 385ºC, and a nickel catalyst that becomes quickly spent. Methanogens use iron-nickel enzymes called hydrogenases to harvest energy from hydrogen, but do so at ambient temperatures.
The future challenge will be to accelerate methane production rates as has been reported for a high temperature oilfield cultures. Besides increasing the temperature, the most obvious solution is to use a higher reactive surface and bringing both electrodes closer together. Using carbon brushes that are poor hydrogen catalysts but provide a higher surface for microbial attachment is one possibility. Methane production correlates with microbial cell numbers in the reactors.
To overcome the problem of expensive carbon (and also steel) brushes for large scale applications,exhausted gas and oilfields could be used. They provide a high surface area and are usually economic liabilities and not assets. Methanogens inhabit oilfields where they carry out the final step in anaerobic petroleum degradation. Hence, oilfields can be seen as bioreactors at geological scale. Geological formations provide ideal conditions for producing, storing and extracting methane.
But how fast can microbes produce methane in an hypothetical oilfield? Under optimal conditions, methanogens that grow on electrodes (typically the genus Methanobacterium or Methanobrevibacter) can produce methane at a rate of 100-200 nmol ml−1 day−1 (equals 2.24-4.48 ml l−1 day−1) depending on catalyst and potential. Using a production rate of 15 J ml−1 day−1 of methane (190 nmol ml−1 day−1), the entire microbially accessible oilfield (2%) has a capacity of 3.6 million MBtu per year. Microbes would theoretically consume 1 TWh per year for 3.6 million MBtu methane production if there were no losses and electrical power is translated into methane 1-to-1. A power generator of 121 MW would be sufficient to supply the entire oilfield at these rates. However, all German off-shore windfarms produce 7,000 MW meaning that only 3% off-peak power can be captured by our example oilfield. Therefore, the catalytic surface and activity must be increased to accelerate methane conversion rates.
Since methanogens produce methane from hydrogen, not only the 2% porespace big enough for cells can be used resulting in an increased catalytic surface to nearly 60%. A hydrogen catalyst needs to be found that does not out-pace methanogen growth to keep the reservoir pH within the limits of 6-8 required for methanogen growth. This hydrogen catalyst must be cheap and render an oilfield electrically conductive. A chemical formulation that mimics microbial hydrogen catalysis could be used. It has the potential to turn a non-conductive and non-catalytic oilfield into a conductive hydrogen catalyst sufficient to sustain methane production needed to store all of Germany’s electricity produced by off-shore windfarms. This catalyst is soluble in water when inactive. To become active, it coats mineral surfaces by precipitation that can be triggered by indigenous microbes or by electrical polarization. The investment would be $2.3 million per MW storage capacity ($16 billion for the entire 7,000 MW). Due to microbial growth, the catalytic activity of the system improves during operation and there is no need for the second component if an immediate production is not crucial. The investments made on the cathode side would then be as low as $600 per MW ($4.2 million for 7,000 MW).
As the cathodic side of the reaction can be excluded as limiting factor, the anode needs to be designed. Several commercially available anodes such as mixed metal oxides (up to 750 A m−2) with platinum on carbon black or niobium anodes (Pt/C, 5-10 kA m−2) could be used. Anodes based on platinum are the most cost-efficient material available on the market. Investments made for Pt/C (10%, 6 mg cm−2) anodes will amount to $50,000 per MW ($350 million for 7,000 MW). However, the exact amount of Pt needed for the reaction still needs to be evaluated in an experiment because the corrosion rate at 2 V cell voltage is unknown. An often cited value for the lifetime of fuel cells is 5,000 hours and is used here to determine the costs per kWh. For 5,000 hours lifetime, the costs per kWh will be at the targeted limit of $0.01 but may be well below that because Pt/C anodes can be recycled and the Pt load may be reduced to 3 mg cm−2 (5%). Alternatively, steel anodes (SS316, 2.5 kA m−2, $54,000 per MW) can be used but it is unclear when steel anodes fail to electrolyze. In conclusion, the anodic side is the cost-driving factor. Hopefully, better water splitting anodes will lower these costs in future.
Cost estimation summary
Already in place
Natural gas capturing equipment
Already in place
Wastewater from oil rig
Total (>5,000 hours anode lifespan)
Energy and conversion efficiencies
The whole cell voltage for microbial power-to-gas reactions varies from 0.6 to 2.0 V, depending on cathodic rates, anodic corrosion and the presence of a membrane. Higher voltages will accelerate anode corrosion, again, making anodes the limiting factor. As the voltage decreases, methane production rates become slower but also more efficient. The voltage also depends on the pH of the oilfield. An oilfield that underwent CO2 injection as enhanced recovery method will have a low pH, providing better conditions for hydrogen production but not for microbial growth and must be neutralized using seawater. As stated above, the oilfield, being the cathode, is not limiting the the system. The use of Pt/C anodes eliminates the overpotential problem on the anode side. Hence, we can assume an ideal system that splits water at 1.23 V. However, the voltage is often 2 V due to anode and cathode overpotentials. Optimized cultures and cathodes produce about 190 nmol ml−1 day−1 methane which equals 0.15 J ml−1 day−1 using the energy of combustion of 0.8 MJ mol−1. The same electrolysis cell consumes 0.2 mW at a cell voltage of 2 V which equals 0.17 J ml−1 day−1 and the resulting energy efficiency is 91%. The anodes can be simple carbon brushes and the two chambers of the cell are separated by a Nafion™ membrane. The system can still be optimized by using Pt/C anodes and by avoiding membranes.
The overall electricity-methane-electricity efficiency also depends on the consumption side efficiency where methane is used in combustion engines and gas fired power plants. Such power plants frequently operate at efficiencies of 40- 60%. Assuming a reasonable power efficiency of 80% (see above), the overall electrical power recovery using gas fired power plants will be up to 50%. Besides the high efficiency of gas fired power plants, they are also easy to build and therefore contribute the a better power grid efficiency. Coal fired power plants can be upgraded to gas fired power plants.
The conversion efficiencies of charge (Coulombs) transported across the circuit are usually between 70-100% in these systems depending on the electrode material. Another efficiency limitation could arise from mass transport inhibition. Mass transport can be improved by pumping electrolyte adding more costs for pumping which still have to be determined. However, since most oilfields undergo seawater injection for enhanced oil recovery the additional cost may be negligible. The total efficiency has yet to be determined in scale-up experiments and will depend on the factors mentioned above.
Controlling the pH is crucial. Alkaline pHs significantly impede hydrogen production and therefore methanogenesis. This can be addressed by a software that monitors the pH and adjusts the potential accordingly. Addition of acids is not desired as this drives the costs. The software can also act as potentiostat that then fully controls the methane production process. To test the process under more realistic conditions, a drill core from an oilfield must be obtained.
Return of investment of the microbial power-to-gas process
The the microbial power-to-gas process in unproductive oilfields is economically superior to all other storage strategies because of the low start-up and operating costs. This is achieved because the major investments are the installation of oil- and gas production equipment and renewable power plants which are already in place as a precondition. These investments break even in a short amount of time.
But how can the microbial Power-to-Gas process accelerate the return of investment in renewable energy? Only 8 out of 28 active off-shore windfarms reported their investment costs. These 8 produce roughly half the overall power of 1,600 MW corresponding to $7 billion. While the maximum production of an oilfield with unlimited supply of electricity would yield hypothetical 3.6 million MBtu natural gas per year resulting a return of $13 million per year the real production is limited by off-peak power generated by renewable energy production. Assuming that the maximum annual methane production corresponds to 10% excess electrical power, $15 million per year can by generated by selling 4.3 million MBtu methane per year on the market. These are $15 million that are not lost during off-peak shutdowns. Clearly, this conservative estimate can help to compensate the investment in renewable energy earlier. It also decreases the investment risk because the investment calculations for new wind farms can be made on a more reliable basis.
In the example using all German windfarms (7,000 MW) this compensation roughly doubles. Using the $60 million generated by methane sales per year, the investment of $4 million for the cathodic catalyst and the $36 million for the Pt/C anodes are compensated for within less than a year. No other investments are required because the target oilfield already produced oil and gas and all necessary installation are in working condition. The target oilfield is swept using seawater as secondary extraction method. Electrical installations are in place for cathodic protection of production equipment in order to prevent microbial corrosion, which, however, may need to be upgraded to pass the now higher power densities. Moreover, CO2 is used from CO2 injection as tertiary enhanced oil recovery method. Only the pH may then need to be adjusted to sustain life by sweeping with seawater.
And this is not the end of oilfield storage capacity. In theory, an oilfield can store the entire amount of renewable energy produced in one year globally, allowing more than enough head room for future development and CO2 sequestration.
In addition to well-established Nafion™ membranes which are currently the best trade-off between high-performance and cost in proton exchange fuel cells (PEM), methanol fuel cells, electrolysis cells etc. As our energy resources are diversifying, there is a growing demand for efficient and selective ion-transport membranes for energy storage devices such as flow batteries.
Redox flow batteries – the energy storage breakthrough
The high demand for a reliable and cost-effective energy storage systems is reflected in the increased diversity of technologies for energy storage. Among different electrochemical storage systems, one of the most promising candidates are redox-flow batteries (RFBs). They could meet large-scale energy storage requirements scoring in high efficiency, low scale-up cost, long charge/discharge cycle life, and independent energy storage and power generation capacity.
Since this technology is still young, the development of commercially and economically viable systems demands:
improvement of the core components e.g. membranes with special properties,
improvement of energy efficiency
reduction in overall cost system.
Meeting demands for redox flow batteries
Two research teams in the United Kingdom, one from Imperial College and the other from the University of Cambridge, pursued a new approach to design the next generation of microporous membrane materials for the redox-flow batteries. They recently published their data in the well renown journal Nature Materials. Well-defined narrow microporous channels together with hydrophilic functionality of the membranes enable fast transport of salt ions and high selectivity towards small organic molecules. The new membrane architecture is particularly valuable for aqueous organic flow batteries enabling high energy efficiency and high capacity retention. Importantly, the membranes have been prepared using roll-to-roll technology and mesoporous polyacrylonitrile low-cost support. Hence, these innovative membranes could be cost effective.
As the authors reported, the challenge for the new generation RFBs is development of low-cost hydrocarbon-based polymer membranes that features precise selectivity between ions and organic redox-active molecules. In addition, ion transport in these membranes depends on a formation of the interconnected water channels via microphase separation, which is considered a complex and difficult-to-control process on molecular level.
The new synthesis concept of ion-selective membranes is based on hydrophilic polymers of intrinsic microporosity (PIMs) that enable fast ion transport and high molecular selectivity. The structural diversity of PIMs can be controlled by monomer choice, polymerization reaction and post-synthetic modification, which further optimize these membranes for RFBs.
Two types of hydrophilic PIM have been developed and tested: PIMs derived from Tröger’s base and dibenzodioxin-based PIMs with hydrophilic and ionizable amidoxime groups.
The authors consider their approach innovative because of
The application of PIMs to obtain rigid and contorted polymer chains resulting in sub-nanometre-sized cavities in microporous membranes;
The introduction of hydrophilic functional groups forming interconnected water channels to optimize hydrophilicity and ion conductivity;
The processing of the solution to produce a membrane of submicrometre thickness. This further reduces ion transport resistance and membrane production costs.
Ionic conductivity has been evaluated by the real-time experimental observations of water and ion uptake. The results suggest that water adsorption in the confined three-dimensional interconnected micropores leads to the formation of water-facilitated ionic channels, enabling fast transport of water and ions.
The selective ionic and molecular transport in PIM membranes was analyzed using concentration-driven dialysis diffusion tests. It was confirmed that new design of membranes effectively block large redox active molecules while enabling fast ion transport, which is crucial for the operation of organic RFBs.
In addition, long-term chemical stability, good electrochemical, thermal stability and good mechanical strength of the hydrophilic PIM membranes have been demonstrated.
Finally, it has been reported that the performance and stability tests of RFBs based on the new membranes, as well as of ion permeation rate and selectivity, are comparable to the performances based on a Nafion™ membranes as benchmark.
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.