Carbon-neutral natural gas? A lab breakthrough but ...(Read article summary)
A microbe can turn wind and solar electricity into natural gas while sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But it's commercial feasibility is not yet tested.
Iâ€™ve been working with new energy inventions and their creators for almost 15 years now.Â I donâ€™t know how many times Iâ€™ve heard a new technology described as â€śthe Holy Grailâ€ť:Â solving all of the worldâ€™s problems forever.
Well, hereâ€™s the newest one using the Holy Grail cliche:Â a supposedlyÂ carbon-neutralÂ method of using microbes to convert electricity into natural gas.
Thanks to anÂ articleÂ written by Brita Belli ofÂ EcomaginationÂ atÂ GE (NYSE: GE), I was pointed to theÂ recently-reported work of aÂ team of researchersÂ led byÂ Alfred SpormannÂ atÂ Stanford UniversityÂ andÂ Bruce LoganÂ ofÂ Penn State University.Â These researchersÂ haveÂ determined thatÂ an organism calledÂ Methanobacterium palustre, when submerged in water on an electrically-chargedÂ cathode,Â will produce methane (i.e., natural gas, CH4) â€” supposedly at an 80% efficiency rate.
The carbon-neutrality of this approach stems from (1) usingÂ surplus electricity generation from non-emittingÂ wind or solar and (2) the microbe extracts the carbon atom for theÂ methane from the CO2 in the atmosphere.
So, in theory, one can make an infinite supply of aÂ relatively cleanÂ fossil-fuel from renewable electricity by sucking carbon out of the air.Â And, given the extensive natural gas pipeline, storage and distribution network, this fuel could beÂ used forÂ baseloadÂ power generation,Â traditional space/water heating and cooking purposes, and even transportation (e.g.,Â natural gas vehicles).
The catch:Â as is often the case with early discoveries in university labs,Â the researchers donâ€™t know how to scale the technologyÂ and achieve consistent/stable results at commercially-useful levels.Â The economics are also highly uncertain.
Donâ€™t hold your breath.Â This type of invention could take a very very long time toÂ turn intoÂ something thatâ€™s viable for the energy marketplace.Â As a long-time executive from one of theÂ supermajorsÂ once said to me, it takes 12-24 months to really prove something at the next order of magnitude â€” and in energy, itâ€™s usually several orders of magnitudes of expansion from the laboratory to the field.Â Thus, what seems like an overnight success story usually has a decade or more of development behind it.
So, while this discovery might turn out to be the Holy Grail â€” and it definitely seems worth monitoring â€” one should not get too excited just yet.Â There are a lot of potential hurdles to be overcome, and some of them may not be surmounted.Â Even if the technology develops favorably, itâ€™s a long way from beingÂ ready for prime-time.
In the meantime,Â this is the only Holy Grail to which I will pay attention.