Methane producing microbes utilise biological nano-wires

A team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have demonstrated that the methane producing microorganism Methanosaeta is able to produce methane from carbon dioxide in partnership with another microorganism Geobacter. In order to do this electrons are transferred from Geobacter to Methanosaeta via microbial nanowires produced by Geobacter. Discovery of this form of electron transfer, referred to as direct interspecies electron transfer or DIET adds to our knowledge of how electron exchange occurs in methane producing microbial ecosystems.

Photo credit: Dale Callahan and Amelia-Elena Rotaru

Photo credit: Dale Callahan and Amelia-Elena Rotaru

This discovery will enable scientists to better understand biological methane production which plays a key role in global climate change and is also a valuable source of renewable energy.

Link to paper.

JMassanetJaime Massanet-Nicolau

Research Fellow and Lecturer in Bioenergy
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales.

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Fuel Cells in the Real World Part 1: Solid Oxide Fuel Cells

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs) are high temperature energy conversion devices similar to batteries which are able to convert gaseous and liquid fuels into electrical and heat energy with considerably greater efficiencies than conventional combustion devices such as boilers or engines. Unlike other types of fuel cells, they are able to run on a wide range of fuels including those which are already practical, such as natural gas, as well as renewably derived fuels such as biogas. SOFCs are therefore a highly desirable technology with the potential to reduce fuel consumption, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and enable the efficient utilisation of fuels from waste and renewable resources. While the high operating temperatures of SOFCs (600°C – 1000°C) makes them most suited to stationary applications where both electrical and heat energy are required, how will they be used in future? A handful of new SOFC systems are shown below which give an indication. More information can be accessed by clicking on the relevant picture.

Bloom EnergyRedox Power Systems MitsubishiCeres PowerAIST

Images from: (1) Bloom Energy, (2) Redox Power Systems, (3) Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, (4) Ceres power, (5) AIST.

There are a range of large scale, domestic scale, CHP (Combined Heat and Power) and CCHP (Combined Cooling, Heating and Power) SOFC systems currently available or in development. SOFC systems for large scale power generation include Bloom Energy’s 200 kW Energy Server range (1), which can each produce enough electricity to meet the ‘baseload requirements of up to 160 homes’. Smaller scale SOFC systems include the intriguing ‘dishwasher-sized’ 25 kW Cube in development by Redox Power Systems (2). The CHP potential of SOFCs has been demonstrated on a large scale by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ 200 kW Combined-Cycle SOFC hybrid system (3), which feeds the hot SOFC exhaust gases into a Micro Gas Turbine to cogenerate more electrical power. SOFC technology is also making its way into homes, with Ceres Power’s 1 kW Wall-Mountable Micro-CHP SOFC System (4) designed to provide heat and electrical power in place of conventional household boilers.

It is crucial these systems are designed to run on natural gas; it is highly unlikely any would be even close to commercialisation if they weren’t able to run on such a cheap and widely available fuel. In addition, a big selling point for many SOFC systems is their modular format, which allows multiple units to be combined in order to meet greater power demands. It is features such as these which have firmly established SOFCs in the stationary fuel cell market, with further growth expected through increasing residential micro-CHP and megawatt installations.

However, it may possibly be a little narrow-minded to think that SOFCs will only be used in stationary applications. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan have developed a portable hand-held SOFC system (5) intended to provide power to disaster areas and emergency situations. This system is able to run on liquid fuels such as LPG and has a lower operating temperature (600°C) so that it has fast start-up times, essential for portability. Such examples of new SOFC technology indicate the possibility of SOFC growth in niche portable markets.

CLaycock Christian Laycock

Research Fellow and Lecturer in Materials Chemistry
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales

Posted in Biogas, Christian Laycock, Energy, Fuel Cells, SOFC, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

…head out on the highway

The University of South Wales’ Baglan Hydrogen Centre has the ability to refuel hydrogen powered vehicles, but until recently we didn’t have a hydrogen vehicle of our own to use. Last week we took delivery of a hydrogen powered van. The van is part of the Eco-Island project investigating hydrogen vehicle refuelling and use. The University of South Wales’ role is to evaluate the performance and operating characteristics of the refuelling station at the Baglan Hydrogen Centre and to develop refuelling strategies to maximise the efficiency of the refueller. It will also allow the performance of the van to be investigated, and parameters such as typical hydrogen usage and number of refills to be determined. The van uses an internal combustion engine adapted to run on either petrol or hydrogen. The choice of fuel is made by the driver. The van will be used for journeys between the hydrogen centre at Baglan, and the main campus in Trefforest.

Hydrogen ICE Van

Hydrogen ICE Van

Hydrogen has the potential to be a major component in our future energy systems, particularly as a vehicle fuel. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but it can only be found rarely in its elemental form on earth. It is nearly always found combined with other elements, e.g. with oxygen to form water, or with carbon to form hydro-carbons such as methane. Because of this we must produce hydrogen from these feed stocks. For this reason we can describe hydrogen as a fuel vector, which we have to produce before we can use it. In this way it is similar to electricity.

When hydrogen is used to power the van, no greenhouse gas emissions are produced, as the van relies on the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen, with the only by-product being water. However, greenhouse gas may be emitted in the production of hydrogen, depending on the source of hydrogen used. Hydrogen can be produced from a number of different sources these include.

  • Electricity via electrolysis of water
  • Biomass, e.g. anaerobic digestion
  • Fossil fuels, e.g. steam methane reforming

The ability of hydrogen to reduce vehicle emissions is dependent on the method of hydrogen production. If renewable sources such as photovoltaic or wind power are used, then there are no greenhouse gas emissions associated with the hydrogen (other than those released in manufacturing equipment). If fossil fuels are used to produce the hydrogen, then greenhouse gas will be produced. However, as the emissions are centralised it increases the possibility of utilising carbon capture and storage.

USW Hydrogen Research and Demonstration Centre

USW Hydrogen Research and Demonstration Centre

The van uses an internal combustion engine adapted to use hydrogen as a fuel. It operates in a very similar way to a standard hydrogen engine. Instead of petrol, hydrogen is combusted with oxygen to drive pistons in the engine, and this mechanical power is used to turn the wheels. The engine must be controlled differently to take account of the different properties of hydrogen compared to petrol. Alternatively to internal combustion engines, fuel cell vehicles are currently being developed in which hydrogen and oxygen are combined electrochemically in a fuel cell, producing electricity and heat. The electricity can be used to power electric motors, similarly to an electric vehicle.

Hydrogen Refueling

Hydrogen refueling at Baglan

The van will be an important addition to the hydrogen centre, as we now have the ability to produce, store and utilise hydrogen both in the hydrogen centre’s office building, and for the vehicle. This will give important information as to how we manage the centres operation to take into account the extra hydrogen demand from the van.

SteveStephen Carr

Research Fellow and Lecturer in Renewable Energy Systems
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales

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Water, water, everywhere?

‘Nor any drop to drink’ as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner goes and that’s the lede to this post on water scarcity and energy. Perhaps a strange subject if you are currently in the UK and the in South West in particular, but actually one that does bear thinking about.

We take for granted that water is essential to life. We require clean drinking water free of contaminants and the production of our food is dependent on a sustainable supply of water. But water is also an essential part of the processes that produce our energy and many of the goods that we take for granted.

Swinford Water Treatment Plant(source J.Reed)

Water security, or water scarcity, is a growing concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [pdf] state that ‘water and its availability and quality will be the main pressures on, and issues for, societies and the environment under climate change.’ Climate change is expected to alter the quantity and quality of available water which will have impacts on the availability of food, access, stability and utilisation. It will not be enough to expect that historic hydrological behaviour will continue into the future as climate change will affect patterns of precipitation and cause changes in the large-scale hydrological cycle.

The Environment Agency in their report The Case for Change – Current and Future Water Availability that ‘Climate change, population growth, and changes in lifestyle are likely to impact significantly on water availability in the future,’ that water resources in the UK are under pressure now, and that water availability is likely to decrease in the future. They also state that management of demand will have a part to play but will be unlikely to relieve all of the pressure on water resources in the UK by 2050.

Combined with a growing global population those pressures will only increase. Globally 70% of freshwater water extracted is used for agriculture [pdf]. The global population is predicted to rise by 2 – 3 billion over the next 40 years resulting in an increase in food demand of about 70% and an inevitable increase in demand for water as a result.

With an increasing population, there will also be an increasing demand for energy, particularly electricity. According to the World Bank there are currently 2.5 billion people with unreliable or no access to electricity and 2.8 billion people who live in areas of high water stress. Currently, according to the International Energy Agency, 15% of extracted freshwater is used for the production of energy, either in the processing of fuels such as biofuels or as coolant for fossil fueled thermal power plants. Global energy consumption expected to rise by 35% through 2035 with water use rising by 20%. Water consumed and not returned to the environment by the energy industry will rise by 85% over the same timescale.  The World Bank reports that in the last 5 years 50% of the worlds energy and utilities companies have experienced water related business impacts.

Diego Rodriguez a senior economist at the World Bank and Program Manager of their Water Partnership Program has stated 4 ways in which water shortages harm energy production:

  1. South Africa: Lack of sufficient water resources in South Africa have forced all new power plants to shift to dry cooling systems, which cost more to build and are less efficient than water-cooled systems.
  2. North America: In the United States, a number of power plants were forced to shut down or reduce power generation due to low water flows or high water temperatures, resulting in significant financial losses. In 2012, California’s hydroelectric power generation was 38% lower than the prior summer due to reduced snowpack and low precipitation.
  3. India: Last year [2013] in India a thermal power plant was forced to shut down because of severe water shortages.
  4. Australia: During one of the worst droughts in 1,000 years, three coal power plants had to reduce electricity production to protect municipal water supplies in 2007.

Point 3 refers to the 1130 MW Parli thermal power plant in Maharashtra which had to be shut down in Feb 2013 when water levels behind the Khadka dam which supplies cooling water to the plant reached dangerously low levels. This is an instance where water resources requirements for  industry, power generation and drinking water and irrigation  were placed into stark opposition by an ongoing drought in the region and highlights the problems that can occur now with competing demands on an increasingly scarce resource and raises the question of where the priorities should be for water utilisation.

In the UK a new focus on shale gas extraction will increase further the water demand for energy production, and create requirements for increased wastewater treatment capacity and infrastructure as well as produce the risk of groundwater contamination.

We will take a look at possible solutions to these problems in future posts.

JReed James Reed

Senior Lecturer in Renewable Energy
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales

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2013: A world record year for wind energy in Denmark

The Danish electricity transmission system operator has reported that on average, wind power supplied 1/3rd of the energy demand for the country in 2013. At times during the year Denmark’s wind energy production exceeded the national demand, peaking on 1st December between 04:00 and 05:00 at 135.8% of demand. The real time breakdown of Danish power production can be seen by clicking the image below.



Hydrogen – Fuel Vector for the Future?

With an increase in deployment of intermittent renewables such as wind there is also an increasing likelihood that there will be times where generation exceeds demand. This means that energy storage becomes more important as a means to balance the grid, and crucially to make use of those extra GW h of electricity otherwise lost. Conventional storage mechanisms like batteries have several drawbacks such as large capital cost, losses due to self-discharge, end of life pollution, etc. and don’t currently scale well for grid storage. One of the solutions is to use hydrogen as an energy vector for renewable energy storage. Excess electricity can be converted to hydrogen, typically via electrolysis and stored, before being converted back to electricity via a fuel cell, or used directly as a vehicle fuel.

At the University of South Wales Baglan Hydrogen Centre, we investigate renewable hydrogen generation via water electrolysis. Our research includes renewable power generation, renewable hydrogen system interface, operation of electrolysers and fuel cells and overall system integration, control and optimisation.

Do you want to know more?

JReed James Reed

Senior Lecturer in Renewable Energy
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales

Posted in Electrolysis, Grid integration, H2 storage, Hydrogen, James Reed, News, Research, wind power | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An alternative way?

Saving CO2 Emissions with Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Technology

Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs) are able to produce electrical and heat energy from fuels which are already practical such as natural gas. SOFC systems such as Ceres Power’s CHP system can generate electrical and heat energy within a home or business, and can therefore lessen dependency on centralised electricity generation at power plants, as their videos show.

This makes it possible to increase the overall efficiency of natural gas use because it avoids electricity transmission losses and the waste heat losses at power stations. Increasing the efficiency will potentially enable households to make significant savings to their energy bill, whilst also making 1.5 tonnes of CO2 emission savings per year compared to households with a conventional household boiler installed. Even when running on natural gas, the emissions produced by SOFCs are much cleaner than conventional boilers, with much less CO2 emitted, and no emissions at all of NOx and SOx pollutants, which are very bad for air quality. Other than CO2, the only other emission is water. The picture below shows the water produced as a result of SOFC testing at the University of South Wales. The water is very pure, with a slight tinge of red, which is only due to the colour of the pipework used on the system. The purity of the water is such that it can be used for drinking, as it is currently aboard spacecraft equipped with fuel cells.


CLaycock Christian Laycock

Research Fellow and Lecturer in Materials Chemistry
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales

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Sustainable Environment Research Centre

Welcome to SERC based at the University of South Wales. SERC is all about sustainable energy and resources – it offers one of the few cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary courses in this high growth area at BSc. and MSc. levels for science students in the UK – using chemistry, biology, maths and physics we look at a sustainable future for the planet.

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