After wood, coal, oil and its derivatives, it’s methane gas that will rule the energy world. If you need reasons why this is so, you are a first time visitor to this blog. Piece of advice: clean your schedule for the rest of the day and get reading.
For all the rest of you methane aficionados – let’s turn another page. And this is a big one.
The energy world has its paradigm shifts but so has the methane world. Currently, we are in the thick of methane 1.x, the time of methane extracted from the earth. This methane age is still alive and kicking as shale gas and methane hydrates show impressively.
Well before methane 1.0 got off the ground, methane 2.0 already started to rear its head. Biogas was produced by the Chinese thousands of years ago and the methane production methods in some African communities have not much changed since those times. Biogas has never been the mainstream energy source and carrier so it remained firmly in its niche. There are huge advances under way but it suffers from a couple of bad afflictions. Biomethane production depends on biomass which is expensive and laborious to produce and processes are inefficient. Besides, the raw gas needs a lot of purification before it can be used.
Still – it’s a very worthwhile development that merits our best efforts. However, the real big price lies in a method of producing methane at any place virtually on demand and out of thin air. Sounds like magic? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Whats methane? A molecular compound called CH4. In other words, its a rather simple molecule made of one part carbon and 4 parts hydrogen. Most people know the chemical formula with a big ball in the middle Symbolizing the carbon and 4 smaller ones around it symbolizing the hydrogen. Hydrogen gives all hydrocarbons energy – carbon gives it a stable bond to make highly reactive hydrogen a much more friendly substance to handle.
So, what we want is the energy of the hydrogen and the stabilizing force of the carbon. Combined they are the most potent stuff we currently have in the energy toolkit because it burns super cleanly and even the slight breeze called exhaust gas can be cleaned up with ease and cheaply so.
Methane is an exceedingly simple compound, so simple that it still awes us. And because it’s so simple and stable it is a prime candidate for mass manufacturing. Biogas and biomethane are a biological form of this mass production. However, there is a much more direct way. No less biological but contrary to biogas, one does not need to take the additional loop of first binding carbon in biomass in order to transform this carbon bound in biomass into methane. The direct way would take carbon directly out of CO2 (or any other source of carbon if you will) and convert it back to methane.
This can be done synthetically but mother nature has also done so for billions of years. Ladies and gentlemen – I am proud to present the superstar metabolism for the energy industry. The methanogen Archaea.
Archaea are some of the most simple and also some of the oldest organisms on earth. They are very little single cell lifeforms that resemble bacteria in many ways. Archaea were discovered as a distinct reign of life in the seventies and they are some of the smallest organisms on earth. The smallest archaea have diameters of less than one micrometer which is about 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Archaea are smaller than bacteria in fact. They are simple organisms that don’t have a core just like bacteria do. Here the similarities end. They live in some of the most extreme environments on the planet such as hot springs, sulfuric vents, deep ocean trenches and even in the human gut – in some cases, this must be the most extreme environment. You know that archaea are doing their bit when you pass gas.
For those organisms, oxygen is as foul as rattlesnake shit is to us. Besides, methane is a byproduct of their digestive processes. And here comes the beauty. Methanogen archaea do not need to ingest biomass in order to transform it into methane. They take the carbon directly from the CO2 and combine it with free Hydrogen if it’s fed to them. They do this through a mechanism called methanogenesis.
This, in turn, makes the whole process much more efficient and also much more portable than the clunky conversion of biomass into biogas. The most expensive piece in the biogas and biomass chain is the horrific cost of logistics for bacterias chow. It costs precious land and needs work, fuel, and machinery to get done.
Then one needs those huge fermenters in order to make the process economic. I have a hunch that they will come down in size but I still can’t see them at work in the basement of a house.
Methanisation does not need all this. All one needs is an electricity source (that can be solar, wind, …), a source of water and a small patch in can be installed at (yes, basements will comply).
That’s a revolution in terms of availability of the source and the process. Just imagine that this thing works no matter what. No seasons to take care of, no biomass storage hence, no dependence on weather related events and also no impact of labor-related events. You just put it there and switch it on and then it autoregulates.
The only question is – how to store and transport it or use it as a fuel? That’s easy. Let’s make LNG (or in this case its LMG or Liquefied Microbial Gas). This gives us storability and makes it a fuel that can power anything that is powered by diesel today.
The future of energy will be just in time methane production and conditioning which makes large scale energy logistics redundant.