With latest technological innovations in wind and solar power, this sector has become cost competitive with the conventional power generation. But the biggest challenge still faced is the intermittent nature of these sources. And the storage of the excess electricity generated by these power plants. As these are not like the conventional plants which can be tuned as per the energy needs.
Laurens Mets, associate professor of molecular genetics and cell Biology, at the University of Chicago has been working on this (addressing the intermittent nature of these renewable sources) since the late nineties. He has successfully developed a technology which uses a selectively evolved, unicellular microorganism that helps convert electricity into methane gas. Once the electricity is converted to gaseous form it then can be stored, transported and used wherever natural gas has an application, even for the power generation on demand. The beauty of this technology is, it has almost achieved direct scaling of the energy, as it’s a well-known fact that direct scaling of the energy from one form to other is rare in the energy field.
Making use of this a start-up Electrochaea was formed with support from the University’s technology transfer office. This is now a part of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Electrochaea was selected for the 2014 Global Cleantech 100 (a list of top 100 private companies which have the greatest potential to solve the clean energy crisis).
The entire process begins with the surplus electricity generated from a wind farm or solar array. This surplus energy is used to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is then combined with waste carbon dioxide (generated from any of the sources, such as a biogas or an industrial process waste) in a proprietary bioreactor. In this, the microorganisms catalyse the conversion of the mixture into methane and water with very high efficiency.
The methane gas produced can be transported in the existing gas pipelines or even it can be converted into compressed natural gas or liquid natural gas, thus making it again available to generate electricity as and when required. This technology has a very large energy carrying capacity as compared to the bulk energy storage systems, such as batteries, pumped hydroelectric etc. This technology enables very effective use of intermittent electricity sources such as the wind and solar. And thus, making renewables more feasible and economically viable.