Tweaking Bacteria, Scientists Turn Sunlight Into Liquid Fuel

Feb 14, 2015

Photograph by Dominick Reuter, MIT

By Christina Nunez

A few years ago, Daniel Nocera pioneered an “artificial leaf” that—just like the real thing—uses only the sun and water to produce energy. He touted the silicon cell as a breakthrough that could allow every home to become its own power station.

His compelling invention, a cheap wafer-thin device, attracted lots of publicity but hasn’t quite taken off. The leaf works well, Nocera says, but there’s a key flaw.

“The problem with the artificial leaf,” Nocera says, is that “it makes hydrogen. You guys don’t have an infrastructure to use hydrogen.”

By “you guys,” Nocera means the world outside the lab. Although Toyota and others companies are making cars built to run on hydrogen, emitting only water vapor, filling up is a problem: Most gas stations are set up to serve liquid fuel.

Storing the Sun

Enter Nocera’s latest creation, a collaboration with biologists at Harvard University and detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday. The researchers created a specially engineered bacteria that can convert hydrogen (from the artificial leaf or another source) into alcohol-based fuel.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

27 comments on “Tweaking Bacteria, Scientists Turn Sunlight Into Liquid Fuel

  • For a new technology to be able to compete in the marketplace, it must be able to use existing infrastructure.
    As an example, all major car manufacturers are capable of building hydrogen powered cars that can compete in the marketplace.

    The real issue becomes fuelling these cars. Setting up the infrastructure to provide fuel to these cars runs into the billions for a minuscule return on investment. Hydrogen cannot be easily stored or transported as a liquid fuel can. Also, containment of hydrogen is very difficult and brings additional costs with it. It is also a prime example of the “just in time ” principle- manufactured just before it is consumed.

    In the example of this technology, there will be further losses in converting the hydrogen into an alcohol based liquid fuel that will require further treatment. In physics there is no free ride, and at each conversion stage there are ‘”energy costs”. Similarly, just as the speed of light cannot be exceeded, there is an upper limit to the amount of solar flux radiating onto the earth that can be used to convert it into energy- roughly 164Watts per square meter over a 24 hour period for the whole planet, with variations depending on latitude.

    While a step in the right direction, this is not the panacea answer to our energy problems, but regardless still requires huge capital investment. And the current cheap availability of fossil fuels doesn’t help either. jcw



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  • kaiserkriss Feb 14, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    The real issue becomes fuelling these cars. Setting up the infrastructure to provide fuel to these cars runs into the billions for a minuscule return on investment. Hydrogen cannot be easily stored or transported as a liquid fuel can.

    While a step in the right direction, this is not the panacea answer to our energy problems, but regardless still requires huge capital investment. And the current cheap availability of fossil fuels doesn’t help either. jcw

    We should, however, soon have some detailed evidence as this Japanese experiment takes off – this year!!

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/06/japan-plans-ample-support-for-fuel-cell-car-technology/



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  • When money is no object, anything is possible.

    I looked at setting up a network of hydrogen refuelling stations, by using existing infrastructure as much as possible in large urban centres. Besides the technical challenges, which are surmountable with cash, there is no appetite in the fickle financial community to finance such long term projects with uncertain economic outlook.

    Think about how cheap it is to set up a petrol station, and how expensive it is to set up a hydrogen fuelling station as illustrated in your link. Combine that with the daily, monthly and annual volumes sold and the proposition becomes untenable quickly without massive Government support. And Governments have enough on their plates to spend money on, such as health care and education and infrastructure. It becomes even more of an issue when current cheap alternatives such as petrol and diesel are tossed into the equation. jcw



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  • kaiserkriss Feb 14, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    It becomes even more of an issue when current cheap alternatives such as petrol and diesel are tossed into the equation. jcw

    Reserves are finite, and CO2 AGW is going to make hydrocarbon burning unsustainable in the long term.

    There is also the possible use of hydrogen in aviation, as I linked here:-
    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2015/02/novel-technology-could-combat-flight-pollution/#li-comment-168431

    This could share the overheads of a distribution and production system.



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  • Indeed Allan, you are absolutely correct, but it won’t happen in my lifetime unfortunately. We’ve had the technology to send someone to Mars for a long time, yet it hasn’t happened, and realistically it is still a long way off.

    Nowadays, the cheapest and easiest way to produce hydrogen is through the Reformer process using… wait for it…….. NATURAL GAS!

    Even the Electrolysis method- splitting the hydrogen from oxygen by passing a current through water, requires an outside power source, that like Natural gas is not free, and neither necessarily renewable, depending on how the electricity was produced. With each additional step required in the “technology train”, (wind turbines etc.) one runs into inefficiencies and additional costs. Even Hydro power is not “free” despite many thinking it is. Dams must be built, (environment and habitat issues) and maintained ( sludge removal to where?) All NIMBY, but real world issues that have to be overcome that add to costs.

    As you probably realize, the devil is in the details, and scrapping an existing infrastructure for new technology doesn’t happen overnight. As an example, just think of housing: The old draughty, albeit often beautiful homes, row houses etc. built 150 years ago, or even more recently, found in any old world city are a far cry from being energy efficient and comfortable abodes. jcw



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  • kaiserkriss Feb 14, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    Even the Electrolysis method- splitting the hydrogen from oxygen by passing a current through water, requires an outside power source, that like Natural gas is not free, and neither necessarily renewable, depending on how the electricity was produced.

    Hi Kris,

    I thought this method of bypassing the use of electricity looked promising for sunny climates.

    http://scitechdaily.com/engineers-develop-water-splitting-solar-thermal-system-to-produce-hydrogen-fuel/

    There were also these alternatives to hydrogen.

    http://phys.org/news/2015-02-combining-solar-thermal-energy-biomass.html

    http://www.aiche.org/academy/videos/conference-presentations/liquid-fuel-production-using-solar-thermal-energy-process-development-and-technoeconomic-evaluation



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  • Thanks for those links Allan.

    I was unaware of the technology developed in Colorado and will look into it further. Just an off the top of my head potential problem I see, is the amount of space (Ha) required to produce “X” MW of useable energy. If this contraption is set up far away from consumers, we are back to the problem of transportation and storage losses. I suppose one should also look at potential environmental unintended consequences relating to “leaking” large amounts of hydrogen into the atmosphere. Still, the technology is in its infancy and should be properly examined for viability.

    I am well aware of the solar-thermal biomass technology outlined in the second paper. One of the biggest, and ignored issues is the collection and centralization of the biomass to be used as feedstock for such a facility. It is not cost effective and can’t compete in the existing marketplace by using agricultural waste in North America. With Natural Gas along the Eastern US Seaboard (Marcellus and Utica shale gas) currently, and for the foreseeable future being cheaper than anywhere in the world except for the Persian Gulf region, this relatively simple technology will be uneconomic for at least 30-40 years. In Europe, forget about it, there is simply not enough biomass waste than isn’t already being used for something else. Input costs would make the project unviable. In less developed countries, there are significant political risks, and finding funding becomes a real issue, even if the other hurdles could be overcome.
    As for the third article. I haven’t looked at it yet, but look forward to doing so.. jcw



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  • Um… Why exactly is hydrogen a problem? You can burn it for heat and/or electricity, which can then be used for anything. “Oh no. It only produces abundant cheap fuel at incredibly low cost. What a useless invention!” Saying the leaf is useless for that reason is profoundly ignorant.

    Hence I’m afraid I’m going to have to assume that, with or without the problems of the alcohol producing bacteria, the leaf in this article is not cheap, and/or only produces tiny amounts of fuel and/or only works in very bright conditions and/or doesn’t last very long.



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  • ANTIcarrot Feb 16, 2015 at 6:17 am

    Um… Why exactly is hydrogen a problem?

    Of all the potential fuels, hydrogen is the star escape artist. It can diffuse out through the walls of many types of container.

    You can burn it for heat and/or electricity, which can then be used for anything.

    Unfortunately in static situations, it is more efficient to use the energy sources for producing hydrogen, to directly produce more electricity than could be produced by using hydrogen in the process.
    Hydrogen is more appropriate as a portable fuel for vehicles or for chemical combination to make the more the manageable methanol fuel.



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  • Hydrogen is highly challenging to transport and store, especially compared to conventional liquid fuels.

    Energy containing liquids come in many forms though and we shouldn’t forget the pumped electrolyte/fuel cell systems. (Redox Flow Batteries) These can provide precharged binary electrolytes that fuel stations can pump into vehicles in minutes. They would discharge used electrolyte from the vehicle and pop in fresh at the same time. No fuel deliveries are needed to the fuel station, just a good enough grid connection to recharge the used electrolyte. Like the fast charge cell technologies these can create huge benefits for renewables and load management whilst providing for our transportation needs.

    Flow batteries are just being developed for self contained use in vehicles at the moment as a superior alternative to Lithium technologies. GM and Quant-e-Sportlimousine are doing just this. If the technology delivers, electrolyte fueling stations could come next.

    I’m now going to start putting links in a dependant post…



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  • I don’t understand why Dan Nocera is even talking about the use of hydrogen for cars – that isn’t even the way he himself envisioned using his water-splitting system just a couple of years ago. Then he was talking about generating hydrogen in underveloped countries as a way of bypassing the grid, making use of water that was as polluted as one wishes for the front end of the process, and producing clean water when the hydrogen is burned for energy. Electric car technology is no longer “twenty years away”, it is already totally competitive in the luxury market, and looks like it will be competitive at the median price point in 5 years or less. It is more energy efficient and the electric-energy storage problem is well on the way to being solved for cars. I think Elon Musk is right, as a car fuel, hydrogen has way too many problems. In developed countries, water-split hydrogen could well be the basic chemical feedstock that replaces hydrogen generated by steam reforming of natural gas or coal. That’s about 8% of fossil fuel usage in the country and would be viable if we had a carbon tax like we should.



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  • Flow batteries are just being developed for self contained use in vehicles at the moment as a superior alternative to Lithium technologies. GM and Quant-e-Sportlimousine are doing just this. If the technology delivers, electrolyte fueling stations could come next.

    I read an article on the internet about the development of electrolyte-fueled flow batteries dated October 2009 – five years ago. By now we should have operational demonstrations of prototypes for these superior electric cars recorded on video. Youtube links, anyone? ( Please no auto show concept cars parked on turntables with leggy models, just the car itself motoring around a track, perhaps stopping for an electrolyte refill at a fueling station.)



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  • Melvin,

    Ever eager, I’m pleased to see.

    But the earlier thoughts on flow battery technology were almost all for grid energy storage and installations (as I recall from my regular Jennifer Gangi Fuel Cell News Letter) were pitched at 10 and 20MW installation with seriously large storage tanks. It has only been in the last few years that transportation has been considered a target, so a long way to go, but a great backup plan to go with the new super ultra mega capacitor/battery technologies of graphene and nano-dot.

    Theses kinds of transportation innovation all start at high end implementation. Because of the chicken and egg dilemma of needing volume to get costs right and not getting volumes without getting the cost right all new technology starts at the money-no-object, early-adopter end and works down. Sexiness (and for millionaire boy-nerds this is not about so much about the legginess of the model but the carbon fibre yumminess she is draped across) sells to press photographers more than anything. ‘Twas ever thus.

    For your own peace of mind I suggest you ignore this (unless you are interested in the issues of the technology and its possible infrastructure rammifications) until it reaches your level of satifaction. Many energy technologies coming to fruition now have remarkably long roots in time. One area where I work (in distributed high frequency power for lighting), was pre-figured in a 1927 patent for discharge tube street lights. It was a brilliant conception but way ahead of materials or skills available at the time.

    The rest of us engaged in these industries will want to talk about them though and here’s why-

    All major inventions have succeeded in great part because of the business model used and the specific market roadmap followed. Boulton and Watt succeeded with their steam engine because cost and maintenance problems could be subsumed into a single contract to do work at a certain rate per day. Edison couldn’t sell his light bulbs until people had their houses wired. They wouldn’t do this for just lighting so he developed the the white goods industry to add weight to the need for electricity. Marconi couldn’t find a market for wireless telegraphy against the entrenched and international network of wired telegraphy. Ship to shore was a niche he could exploit but it had no real volume to justify the cost of the equipment. What he did was keep the rich, famous and business tycoon (often afloat) in touch with the world. He invented the Blackberry of his day. (Ah! remember them?) Filled out with insurance companies and commodity traders, he found the traffic to support the investment in and the development of speech transmission.

    Having the public imagine the applications, problems and value of a new technology is a fundamental aspect of efficiently directing its first release. It helps identify co-opting technologies and markets (e.g. utility supply and EV). It helps discover fatal flaws about modes of use. It helps identify potential value.

    Or you can accept this is ten years away and instead of ignoring it until then, comment on what you think it might solve or confound if it were to work. This is how the general public become inventors too. Invention requires you to imagine a finished thing, a widget or a service, though key parts may be currently missing. Its how any progress is made, discovering exploitable niches, why the missing X part wouldn’t be an issue for this. I wish everyone would realise the role they can play in inventing the future.



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  • Improved Redox Flow Batteries For Electric Cars
    Date:
    October 13, 2009
    Source:
    Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft
    Summary:
    A new type of redox flow battery presents a huge advantage for electric cars. If the rechargeable batteries are low, the discharged electrolyte fluid can simply be exchanged at the gas station for recharged fluid – as easy as refilling the gas tank.

    …The researchers have already produced the prototype of a cell. Now they must assemble several cells into a battery and optimize them. This further development is being carried out with colleagues from the University of Applied Sciences, Ostphalia, in Wolfenbüttel and Braunschweig. They are testing electric drives and energy storage units on model vehicles that are only a tenth of the size of normal vehicles. The research team has already built a traditional redox flow battery into a model vehicle. A vehicle on a scale of 1:5 can be seen in action on a test rig set up at the eCarTech in Munich from 13 to 15 October. In the coming year the researchers also want to integrate the new battery, with four times greater mileage, into a model vehicle.

    The article at http://www.sciencedaily.com is five and a half years old. No offense Phil. I appreciate the information and have infinite respect for your knowledge, experience and achievements in the field. I only asked to see the demonstration of a single vehicle -a prototype built on the scale of a current ICE compact car- being driven around a track. According to the article the engine can easily be re-engineered to extend the EV’s initial limited range of about 12 miles to a range of about 60 miles between electrolyte refueling. A single downsized electrolyte fueling station could also be included in the performance demonstration of the flow batteries car. Ironically Olgun’s offering of the Family Guy excerpt fulfills my request. The guy dependent on a candle flickering in his cold dark house, actually observes Edison’s model house across the street fully illuminated with incandescent light bulbs.



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  • No offense, Melvin. No one thought the demonstration of flow batteries for vehicular use in 2009 was anything other than a kite flier, an attempt to raise some interest and some funding. The performance was way behind Li-ion and even NiMH.

    At the same time as this little show, flow batteries were in the big league as far as grid energy storage. Here is a 2009 paper from EPRI showing its (high!) status against others at the time. Companies were substantially funded with ready to go commercial designs, a few being implemented.

    No attempt was really needed for addressing the issue of energy density in static use (bigger storage tanks are a small fraction of infrastructure cost in static installations and become cheaper per unit volume as volumes go up.) Low energy density is, however, catastrophic in vehicular applications. For small deltas fuel efficiency turns out to be pretty much inversely proportionate to weight.

    In the last few years this impediment has been seemingly removed and an energy density that is positively beneficial compared to other battery technologies has been achieved. The Quant e-limo talks of three to four hundred mile range. This first demonstrator puts mobile flow battery technology at the equivalent stage of static flow battery technology of perhaps 2007 to 2009. The major technological problems have now been removed and the first (quirky!) low volume application has been found.

    The issue is now one of imagining routes of commercialisation and its competition with graphene and nano-dot and indeed whether fuel stations and five minute refueling are a key to public acceptance of EVs.

    It has only been in the last few years that transportation has been considered a viable target,

    There fixed for you.

    Patience!…..But discuss its possible consequences.



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  • Thanks again Phil. I reviewed more articles on flow batteries which largely confirm what you report with far more comprehension of the science than a layman. By way of summary the future looks bright for further applications. Challenges remain but the main obstacles have largely been overcome. I look forward to revolutionary changes not only in EVs but also in carbon-neutral energy sources meeting global demand well before mid century. Still I wonder why the tech-savvy guys on the site haven’t discussed flow battery technology more when the topic of clean energy has come up. More puzzling is the near absence of coverage on mainstream media of an emerging technology ramping up over the next 5 to 10 years with the potential to render much of the fossil fuel sector obsolete. Cheers.



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  • viable if we had a carbon tax like we should.

    Yes, I agree with Tim.

    The most effective way to progress the necessary energy revolution is to price carbon appropriately and remove the massive subsidies fossil producers currently enjoy. Market forces would speedily address the problem. Murdoch’s anti-science media wouldn’t have the same influence. Scientists wouldn’t have to compete with conservatives squealing about population explosions or economic fears.



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  • More puzzling is the near absence of coverage on mainstream media of an emerging technology ramping up over the next 5 to 10 years with the potential to render much of the fossil fuel sector obsolete.

    Flow batteries get a fair mention for smaller (10 to 20MW) power grid storage. It is seen as ideal at this scale as they canserve as emergency power supplies for hospitals, factories and small communities. This then distributes peak-shaving capacity around the system in a mostly self financing way. (If as an energy user you can negotiate cheaper electricity by being prepared to defer X amount of energy usage when requested and you can pay for it with just increasing tank size, then that is an easier investment win as the tanks size delta works in your favour as earlier noted.)

    The energy storage need has very many alternatives (flywheel, pumped subterrannean air, hydro) with different propects at different sizes. Pumped hydro has the scale needed and the best costs if geography allows. Now, next most cost effective is HVDC power piped in from a great distance and preferably a different time zone. This could trump several storage technologies as it overlaps with other simple commercial requirements (like Iceland selling the UK hydro and geothermal power.) EV crossover into utility power with batteries and electrolyte storage and now with fast charge technologies favouring a fuel station model (all this very new) we may see much of the chemical energy storage research redirected into fuel station models and topical emergency power, rather than huge stand alone storage.

    Remember most media are concerned with neat little stories. They don’t see themselves as part of the inventive team. Scientific American is your best bet to follow this stuff if you are interested. Trade Papers if you are really, really interested.



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