Most of us will remember from our time at school that life divides into different reigns. One of them belongs to Bacteria, scientifically called Prokaryotes. They are simple singular cell life forms with no cellular core and RNA swimming free in a sack of chemicals. They are the very simplest life forms the broad public generally knows of.
Another reign is constituted by living beings composed by more complex cells with a core and specialized organelles. They are called Eukaryotes and make up all life we can see with the unaided eye around us. Plants, animals, our own bodies are all Eukaryotes.
However, that’s not the end of it. It gets really, really strange.
In 1990, Archaea have been recognized as a third domain of life besides the two above mentioned ones. Although Archaea have long been classified as one of the kingdom of Bacteria, they are as different from them as we are from those germs.
Archaea often live in the most extreme environments, they have the most unusual shapes and can sometimes feed on things we would find wildly indigestible such as ammonia, metal ions and even hydrogen gas.
OK, you probably are not a biology freak as I am. That’s fair – not everyone find pleasure in being a Polymath.
But you don’t need to be a biology nerd in order to like this. Are you energy professional, or a green activist or indeed a utility manager or just a regular Joe with an interest in how life is going to be in 20 years from now? If yes, listen up.
Archaea hold the potential to solve all energy and environmental problems humanity knows today and it will do so renewably and emissions free. Do I have your attention now?
Archaea seem alien at first sight but they are also physically closer to you and me than you might like to believe. Billions of them live in your gut and help your biochemistry to function properly. In fact, if it was not for them we would not even be able to live as they support some of the most vital processes in our bodies like digestion as an example. Their end products give funny pleasures to our nostrils when we pass gas. The methane in those gases is the result of the digestive processes at work in those Archaea.
This as a fact is interesting enough by itself , as the bio methane industry depends on many of those organisms for their smooth operations. But the real power of those little beings lies somewhere else and the consequences might well be earth shattering.
Just imagine an organism that feeds straight on hydrogen and CO2 and produces very pure methane in the process. I said above that there are Archaea that feed on hydrogen and some of them combine CO2 and hydrogen to produce Methane and water.
Here it gets exciting as this has the power to resolve one of the most pressing problems renewable power sources such as wind and solar have. They are intermittent which means that they produce power when the wind blows or when the sun shines. This however rarely coincides with our consumption patterns as we want to take showers or watch television when we feel like doing it or it suits us, not when the weather god likes us or not.
Storing the energy produced during high production but low consumption cycles is technically challenging and hugely expensive. Plus, the technology behind is challenging for big volumes.
Besides, the one big area of energy consumption that is still firmly in petroleum’s firm grip is mobility. Pure e-mobility exists but it’s not even the icing on the Mount Everest snowcap.
Methane would of course be THE solution as it’s combustion is very clean and it could be very cheap as well. Plus it can be stored either under pressure as CNG or liquefied as LNG so that a vehicle would be able to function the way they did for a century – by burning stuff in order to create motion.
If this methane comes straight out of nature it would give back to nature what it took from it just recently so its carbon neutral. But I have beaten this horse to death.
If the intermittent power produced by wind or solar would instead be used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis, it would create the feed necessary for the methanophile Archaea to do their job. Just add some cheap source of CO2 and the circle is squared.
You will say that electrolysis is expensive and makes the process unattractive but most of the cost stems from the cost of electricity and this is free in our case. Many wind turbines and solar panels have to be switched off for long stretches of the day because the produced electricity can simply not be used. Expensive installations lay idle for long times but if they continued the deliver their cheap electricity to a device that will take it whenever it comes and power down in times of high consumption, hydrogen production becomes a breeze.
Besides, the Methanizer (I like cool names and this one fits the bill) could be rather small so it would be produced in high numbers and deployed just about anywhere. If placed close to the power production units, the load on the grid would be negligible.
Let’s face it – wind and solar can only work with tiny microorganisms munching hydrogen produced from electricity that by itself was made from wind that blew at the wrong time and sun that shone when no one needed it. And it stores the energy in order to release it when no wind or sun is available to power our appliances. Plus, methane is also a perfect solution for mobility.
All this comes with mostly existing technology. A few startups already work on the Methanizer and some have produced prototypes. When this thing goes mainstream (and I bet it will) – big oil will go down for real.
High oil prices brought us shale and energy efficiency. Prices are lower now but the Methanizer goes the way of shale gas. Once the economics are understood, prices will come down even more putting it into head on competition with classical Natural Gas and oil at any price level.
It will bring us limitless, clean energy from the weirdest life forms we know.