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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

FUTURE PATHWAYS FOR BATTERIES AND BIOFUELS

The state of commercial technology seems to be fermentation of biomass into ethanol and the lithium-ion battery.  Today, I will report on two possible future breakthroughs showing potential for significantly improving the application of biofuels and batteries.

First, a buzz about a microbe that is 14 times better than anything else.  This enzyme was announced in 2013, but not with so much fanfare.  Further, enzyme CelA might not actually be 14 times better.  Isolated from the left bacterium Caldicellosiruptor bescii, it is thermophilic (high temperature) and was in 1990 originally found in a geothermal heated pool in Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia.  But it is true that CelA is "much" more effective than the current workhorse, Cel7A.  Another plus is that the operation occurs at rather high fermentation temperatures, up to 197 F, thus placing the mixture closer to boiling point to separate the produced biofuel.  More so, there are signs that pre-treatment can be simplified with this particular enzyme.

It should be noted that this "discovery" is yet in the early research stage, and commercialization could well be a decade or more in the future.  And, finally, there is the matter of cost.  Methanol, for example, is cheapest when produced from natural gas.  To remove fossil fuels from the equation, methanol from gasification of biomass and catalysis is much quicker and cheaper than any fermentation technology.  Yet, if an enzyme can hasten the conversion ten times faster, that could be a game-changer.

Biofuels Digest had another article entitled, The 41 Weirdest Things Ever Used to Make Biofuels.    I won't go into vivid detail, you can click on that link and read the posting, but here are just a few feedstocks mentioned:  Prince Charles' leftover wine, liposuction fat, bunnies....  I might add that Caldicellulosinuptor bescii made this list.

I've been intrigued with a concept called the flow battery, which is similar to a fuel cell, where the electrolyte (ionic material) is not a solid, but a liquid, and stored outside the device.  Charging is rapid and the system is known for long lifetimes.  This concept seems ideal for utility applications, that is, storage and peaking. The negatives include the need for pumps, sensors and secondary vessels.  The energy densities also tend to be low.

Renewable Energy World reported on the use of Imergy's vanadium-flow battery storage system at a Slovenian Alps restaurant renowned for its donuts.  The return on investment seems attractive, so commercialization for specific applications might well already be here.  In fact, hundreds of these packages are already being used in  India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and, even Hawaii.


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