17 February 2012
Using sunlight to produce natural gas minus the fracking, drilling, water pollution and CO2 emissions
As a result of an exponentially rising population and industrialization around the world, the demand for global energy is expected to double by 2050. While fossil fuels will continue to meet the majority of those energy needs for a long time, crude oil supplies are limited and pose unprecedented environmental risks. And while many claim America’s booming natural gas industry will be the holy grail in alleviating a tightening market, public skepticism is mounting regarding the unforeseen costs of the methods used in obtaining those sources.
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas is not only pointed to for contaminating crucial aquifers, but also as a highly likely cause of minor to medium scale earthquakes (thus far at least). However, the natural gas industry has the most potential to meet a fast approaching future energy crisis, increasing domestic energy security in a way that’s slightly more environmental than extracting petroleum. Until renewables are able to make a significant dent in the global energy market, natural gas will continue to serve as one of the most important transitional variables in reaching a greener energy future.
But what if natural gas could come in a form that is renewable, safe and inexpensive? Researchers at HyperSolar believe they have found the answer that could potentially revolutionize the industry.
RENEWABLE NATURAL GAS
Using solar to react with wastewater and carbon dioxide, HyperSolar has developed a photochemical reaction that mimics photosynthesis to produce renewable natural gas safely (above ground) and, more importantly, cost-effectively.
“We need a renewable fuel that is environmentally clean,” says Tim Young, CEO of HyperSolar. “But before you can start, you must ask first and foremost, ‘what form of renewable fuel can be economically produced?’ The beauty of this project is that we’re starting with commercialization in mind.”
The process requires sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and a slurry reactor, or vessel resembling a large baggy for lack of more elegant language. When wastewater enters the slurry reactor housing thousands of nanoparticles, hydrogen is produced through a photochemical process that is then reacted with carbon dioxide to create methane or natural gas. Instead of using expensive pure water, the process utilizes waste streams from industrial facilities, simultaneously detoxifying wastewater containing organic molecules of all kinds to produce molecular hydrogen and clean water. The nanoparticles can be programmed to react with different forms of wastewater and the reaction takes place at a low voltage, requiring minimal solar power.
“There are two forces working together that make this a very attractive proposition in terms of energy,” says Young. “Not only are we able to produce a cost-effective renewable form of energy, but also clean water in the process.”
After HyperSolar completes a series of pilot programs over the next several months, Young believes the technology has the potential to have a significant impact on the industry in the near future as “the only form of solar energy that may prove to be truly cost effective will come in a chemical form—hydrogen,” concludes Young. “And since the infrastructure of the natural gas pipeline is already in place, natural gas is the most logical way to go.”