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Tag Archives: Biohydrogen

It is clear substituting fossil fuels with Hydrogen is not only efficient but also sustainable in the long run. While efforts are on to produce Hydrogen at a cost in par with Gasoline or less using various methods, sustainability is equally important. We have necessary technology to convert piped natural gas to Hydrogen to generate electricity on site to power our homes and fuel our cars using Fuelcell.But this will not be a sustainable solution because we can no longer depend on piped natural gas because its availability is limited; and it is also a potent greenhouse gas. The biogas or land fill gas has the same composition as that of a natural gas except the Methane content is lower than piped natural gas. The natural gas is produced by Nature and comes out along with number of impurities such as Carbon dioxide, moisture and Hydrogen sulfide etc.The impure natural gas is cleaned and purified to increase the Methane content up to 90%, before it is compressed and supplied to the customers. The gas is further purified so that it can be liquefied into LNF (liquefied natural gas) to be transported to long distances or exported to overseas.

When the natural gas is liquefied, the volume of gas is reduced about 600 times to its original volume, so that the energy density is increased substantially, to cut the cost of transportation. The LNG can be readily vaporized and used at any remote location, where there is no natural gas pipelines are in existence or in operation. Similarly Hydrogen too can be liquefied into liquid Hydrogen. Our current focus is to cut the cost of Hydrogen to the level of Gasoline or even less. Biogas and bio-organic materials are potential sources of Hydrogen and also they are sustianable.Our current production of wastes from industries business and domestic have increased substantially creating sustainability isues.These wastes are also major sources of greenhouse gases and also sources of many airborne diseses.They also cause depletion of valuable resources without a credible recycling mechanisms. For example, number of valuable materials including Gold, silver, platinum, Lead, Cadmium, Mercury and Lithium are thrown into municipal solid waste (MSW) and sewage. Major domestic wastes include food, paper, plastics and wood materials. Industrial wastes include many toxic chemicals including Mercury, Arsenic, tanning chemicals, photographic chemicals, toxic solvents and gases. The domestic and industrial effluents contain valuable materials such as potassium, Phosphorous and Nitrates. We get these valuable resources from Nature, convert them into useful products and then throw them away as a waste. These valuable materials remain as elements without any change irrespective of type of usages.Recyling waste materials and treatment of waste water and effluent is a very big business. Waste to wealth is a hot topic.

The waste materials both organic and inorganic are too valuable to be wasted for two simple reasons. First of all it pollutes our land, water and air; secondly we need fresh resources and these resources are limited while our needs are expanding exponentially. It is not an option but an absolute necessity to recycle them to support sustainability. For example, most of the countries do not have Phosphorous, a vital ingredient for plant growth and food production. Bulk of the Phosphorus and Nitrates are not recovered from municipal waste water and sewage plants. We simply discharge them into sea at far away distance while the public is in dark and EPA shows a blind eye to such activities. Toxic Methane gases are leaking from many land fill sites and some of these sites were even sold to gullible customers as potential housing sites. Many new residents in these locations find later that their houses have been built on abandoned landfill sites. They knew only when the tap water becomes highly inflammable when lighting with a match stick. The levels of Methane were above the threshold limit and these houses were not fit for living. We have to treat wastes because we can recover valuable nutrients and also generate energy without using fresh fossil fuels. It is a win situation for everybody involved in the business of ‘waste to wealth’.

These wastes have a potential to guarantee cheap and sustainable Hydrogen for the future. Biogas is a known technology that is generated from various municipal solid wastes and effluents. But current methods of biogas generation are not efficient and further cleaning and purifications are necessary. The low-grade methane 40-55% is not suitable for many industrial applications except for domestic heating. The biogas generated by anaerobic digestion has to be scrubbed free of Carbon dioxide and Hydrogen sulfide to get more than 90% Methane gas so that it can be used for power generation and even for steam reforming to Hydrogen generation. Fuel cell used for on site power generation and Fuel cell cars need high purity Hydrogen. Such Hydrogen is not possible without cleaning and purifying ‘ biogas’ much. Hydrogen generation from Biogas or from Bioethanol is a potential source of Hydrogen in the future.

Many universities, research and development institutions and industries are studying various biological processes to produce Hydrogen using different sources of organic materials such as Starch, Glucose, Bioethanol and cellulosic materials. However many of these technologies are at an early “proof of concept’ stages.  Moreover these processes depend upon site and availability of specific raw materials in these locations. For example, Brazil has been very successful in the production of Bioethanol from sugar cane molasses and using it as the fuel for cars. Brazil has also successfully used Bioethanol as a substitute for Naphtha as a feedstock for the production of ethylene, a precursor for a several plastics such as PVC and Polyethylene and Glycols. Bioethanol is a classic example of biological process than can successfully substitute Gasoline .Many industrial raw materials are also derived from Sugar cane and Corn Starch. The main issue in substituting Gasoline with bio-chemicals is political, in many countries. India has produced industrial alcohol from sugarcane molasses for  number of years but they were not be able successfully substitute Gasoline with Alcohol. They have to fix the price of Alcohol in relation to the price of Gasoline or Naptha.This pricing mechanism is critical.

We have been using coal as the raw material for several decades not only to generate power but also to produce host of organic chemicals and fertilizers such as Urea, coal-tar chemicals such as dyes and pharmaceuticals. These industries later switched over to oil and Gas. Now the world is facing depletion of fossil fuels at a faster rate. Greenhouse emission and global warming threats are looming large. There is a clear sign that the energy prices will sharply increase in the near future. Renewable energy projects are at early stages and their first costs and cost of productions are much higher compared to fossil fuel based power generation. However biological processes and biofuels offer a glimpse of hope to get over the energy crisis and also to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Production of   Biohydrogen using bio-organic organic materials such as starch, glucose and cellulosic materials are under development, but it may be a decade before they can be successfully commercialized. But production of Bioethanol and Biogas are well-known technologies. Generation of Biogas from agricultural waste, food waste and municipal solid waste and waste water are known technologies. However Methane the major constituents of biogas, is a potential greenhouse gas. The Biogas can be easily cleaned from other impurities such as Carbon dioxide and Hydrogen sulfide and can be readily converted in Hydrogen gas by steam reformation. This will substantially increase the energy efficiency of Biogas plants.

Many developing countries can adopt these technologies on a wider scale and promote Bioethenaol and Biogas generation to substitute petroleum oil and gas. They can convert Gasoline cars into 100% Bioethanol (anhydrous) or blended with gasoline fuels for cars. These technologies are commercially available. Some countries in Asia, Africa and South America produce various starches such as Tapioca starch for industrial applications. Vegetable oils such as Jatropha and Castor oils are excellent for bio-fuels and lubricants. Though it is theoretically possible to substitute most of the petrochemicals with bio- organic materials, it is important that food products such as corn should not be diverted for commercial applications such as fuel.

The coming decade will be a challenging one and Hydrogen generation from various biological organic materials can substitute fossil fuels at a much faster rate. A judicial mix of bio-energy and renewable energy such as solar and wind should help the world to overcome the challenges.

We know from the famous equation  of Albert Einstein , that a tiny amount of mass is a vast storehouse of energy. But even the molecular Hydrogen as a result of water decomposition, is a promising energy source of the future. However, the amount of energy we use to split water into Hydrogen and Oxygen is higher compared to the amount of energy that Hydrogen can generate using Fuel celll. But we can mitigate this problem by using Renewable   energy such as PV solar, Solar (thermal), wind energy, geothermal energy, and Ocean thermal energy conversion. The cost of renewable energy is still expensive for two reasons;

  1. We are used to cheap energy from fossil fuels for decades, and we have already recovered most of these investments.

2. A complete switch over to renewable energy technologies will require massive new investment. Unlike the investments we made on fossil fuel infrastructures over several decades, we have to invest on renewable Energy development on a massive scale, and we have to deploy them in a shorter span of time, simultaneously all over the world. Currently there is no such infrastructure in renewable energy industry in existence.

Meanwhile the unabated emission of carbon dioxide by fossil fuels is causing global warming. There are many skeptics on the science on global warming. Such skepticism does not stem from the fact that they have a concrete proof but, ‘such skepticism’ serves their vested interest. Politicians who are in power do not want any increase in the cost of energy, which becomes unpopular among people may eventually, throw them out of power. They say they want to serve people with low cost energy but, neither politicians nor the common man understands the consequences of such measures.

It will be our future generations who will face the brunt of this skepticism, by facing fuel shortage or unaffordable cost of fuel, erratic climate change, and frequent natural catastrophies.It is time for the world to act decisively and swiftly and move towards renewable energy, by massive investment and creation of new skills and jobs on a very large scale.

The companies who have massively invested in fossil power plants, and the governments who depend on the support of such companies and who want to keep the energy cost low, because of its popularity, are the major list of scientists opposing main stream scientific assessment of global warming. The hidden cost of environmental challenges and its consequences is much higher than the savings, due to cheap fossil fuels. It requires a paradigm shift and a sense of social justice, in the minds of Governments and companies. It is not all that difficult to switch over to cleaner technologies. In fact most of the technologies are already available and it requires only a ‘will, bold decision and leadership’ by Governments.

Any clean energy solution should be sustainable in the long run. Hydrogen can meet not only the sustainability but even the transition from fossil fuel to Hydrogen will be smooth. To start with all existing fossil fuel infrastructures can be modified towards Hydrogen generation, and fuel cell based Electricity generation  infrastructures. Of course this will require large investment but compared to a complete shift to renewable energy, it will require only a relatively smaller investment. For example, all fuel stations can be converted into Hydrogen stations by simply installing steam reformers, including LNG based fuel stations. All gasoline based automobiles can be either fitted with Hydrogen IC engines, or converted to fuel cells cars similar to Honda FXL models. If the Governments all over the world can agree for such conversion and a complete shift to Hydrogen economy then, it can become a reality in the next decade. We have to focus on ‘Renewable Hydrogen’, which can come from seawater, a waste source of Hydrogen using renewable energy sources, and Biohydrogen  using from waste organic matters. The future generation will not only have a cleaner and affordable fuel but, a more sustainable future!

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