Microbe-Powered 'Fart' Machine Could Help Store Wind and Solar Energy (For Real!)

Photo: Bruce Logan, Pennsylvania State University
It Smells in Here... Who Shocked the Microbes?
Using microbes to generate energy, or convert it from one form to another, has a long history. We've written about it many times... But this one is different. It could actually help store the energy produced by clean sources that have the downside of being intermittent, basically taking the electricity and turning it into more easily stored methane. Read on to find out how this 'fart machine' works.archea bacteria photo

From Discovery News:

It works like this: giving small jolts of electricity to single-celled microorganisms known as archea prompts them to remove C02 from the air and turn it into methane, released as tiny "farts." The methane, in turn, can be used to power fuel cells or to store the electrical energy chemically until its needed. [...]

Most archea are still a mystery to scientists, but methane-producing archea, known as methanogens, are well known. They team up with termites to digest wood pulp. With other microorganisms, they help decompose organic matter.

What Are the Alternatives?
These microbes are about 80% efficient when converting electricity into methane. The 20% loss might sound like a lot, but it isn't when you consider that right now we often don't have a choice. If you have a big wind farm, and the wind is blowing at night when there's very little demand for power, your choices are few. Maybe if you have hydro close-by you can pump water uphill. Maybe some day wind farms will generate hydrogen with any surplus electricity they generate... But right now, most of it is lost (especially in areas where the power grid isn't well interconnected with other regions/countries that might use the surplus power).

Making Intermittent Renewables More Attractive
So this new technique could actually make a pretty big different, both on the environmental side, but also on the economics of renewables. If intermittency becomes a smaller problem - it still sucks when the wind isn't blowing when you need it, but at least you can store the surplus and sell back the methane later - this could increase the rate of deployment of wind and solar.

Via Discovery News
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Tags: Alternative Energy | Biofuels | Energy


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