Electrofuel System Could Build Alternative Fuels
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have developed a new bioreactor capable of storing electricity as liquid fuel with the help of a genetically engineered microbe.
The federal agency funding the research calls the technology “electrofuels.” If all goes well, the hybrid bioelectric system could offer a more efficient way of turning sunlight into fuel than growing plants for biofuel.
UCLA chemical engineer James Liao and his colleagues reported on their "integrated electro-microbial bioreactor" in Science on March 30.
By tweaking the genetics of Ralstonia eutropha, a soil microbe that can use hydrogen as an energy source to build CO2 into more microbrial growth, the team has come up with a microbe that can now churn out butanols, or liquid fuel. What's more is that the bioreactor sources its electricity from a solar panel. When the current flows into an electrode in the bioreactor, a chemical reaction begins between water, CO2 and R. eutropha. Using CO2 to make formate-carbon dioxide, the genetically engineered microbe then consumes the formate to yield butanols and CO2 as waste product, which can be recycled back through the process.
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With the power of a photovoltaic panel, the bioreactor produced 140 milligrams per liter of butanol fuel within 80 hours. Although the hybrid process broke down after that time frame, the team believes that this same approach can be used to produce other kinds of fuels or chemicals.
However, much research is still needed. Although the bioreactor and its electrofuel are novel ideas, the DoE's Advanced Research Projects Agency does not think it will be commercially viable in the long run. What interests researchers more will be the outcome of more similar projects and determining whether electrofuels will ultimately have an impact or not.
Major move forward for UK’s nascent marine energy sector
Although the industry is small and the technologies are limited, marine-based energy systems look to be taking off as “the world’s most powerful tidal turbine” begins grid-connected power generation at the European Marine Energy Centre.
At around 74 metres long, the turbine single-handedly holds the potential to supply the annual electricity demand to approximately 2,000 homes within the UK and offset 2,200 tonnes of CO2 per year.
Orbital Marine Power, a privately held Scottish-based company, announced the turbine is set to operate for around 15 years in the waters surrounding Orkney, Scotland, where the 2-megawatt O2 turbine weighing around 680 metric tons will be linked to a local on-land electricity network via a subsea cable.
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Described as a “major milestone for O2” by CEO of Orbital Marine Power Andrew Scott, the turbine will also supply additional power to generate ‘green hydrogen’ through the use of a land-based electrolyser in the hopes it will demonstrate the “decarbonisation of wider energy requirements.”
“Our vision is that this project is the trigger to the harnessing of tidal stream resources around the world to play a role in tackling climate change whilst creating a new, low-carbon industrial sector,” says Scott in a statement.
The Scottish Government has awarded £3.4 million through the Saltire Tidal Energy Challenge Fund to support the project’s construction, while public lenders also contributed to the financial requirements of the tidal turbine through the ethical investment platform Abundance Investment.
“The deployment of Orbital Marine Power’s O2, the world’s most powerful tidal turbine, is a proud moment for Scotland and a significant milestone in our journey to net zero,” says Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Net-Zero, Energy and Transport for the Scottish Government.
“With our abundant natural resources, expertise and ambition, Scotland is ideally placed to harness the enormous global market for marine energy whilst helping deliver a net-zero economy.
“That’s why the Scottish Government has consistently supported the marine energy sector for over 10 years.”
However, Orbital Marine CEO Scott believes there’s potential to commercialise the technology being used in the project with the prospect of working towards more efficient and advanced marine energy projects in the future.
“We believe pioneering our vision in the UK can deliver on a broad spectrum of political initiatives across net-zero, levelling up and building back better at the same time as demonstrating global leadership in the area of low carbon innovation that is essential to creating a more sustainable future for the generations to come.”
The UK’s growing marine energy endeavours
This latest tidal turbine project isn’t a first for marine energy in the UK. The Port of London Authority permitted the River Thames to become a temporary home for trials into tidal energy technology and, more recently, a research project spanning the course of a year is set to focus on the potential tidal, wave, and floating wind technology holds for the future efficiency of renewable energy. The research is due to take place off of the Southwest coast of England on the Isles of Scilly