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University of Chicago Startup Turns Renewable Energy into Natural Gas

 

A technology developed at the University of Chicago, and now being commercialized by a University startup, is addressing the intermittent nature of renewable energy, sources such as wind and solar power, by converting electricity into methane gas. That gas can be then stored, transported and used wherever natural gas is used, including as a transportation fuel or for the generation of power on demand.

Laurens Mets, associate professor of molecular genetics and cell biology, began developing the technology in the late 1990s. From it, the startup Electrochaea was born with support from the University’s technology transfer office, which is now part of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“Direct scaling at this pace and scale is rare in the energy field,” Mets said. “But we found this technology to be eminently scalable, so I’m very confident about its commercialization.”

Electrochaea was selected for the 2014 Global Cleantech 100—a list of 100 private companies with the greatest potential to solve the clean energy crisis according to the market intelligence firm Cleantech Group.

The process starts with surplus electricity that is coming from a wind farm or solar array. That power is used to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is combined with waste carbon dioxide from any of a variety of sources, such as a biogas or an industrial process, in a proprietary bioreactor in which the microorganisms efficiently catalyze conversion of the mixture into methane and water. The resulting methane can be transported in existing pipelines or converted into CNG or LNG.

Created in 2006, Electrochaea first validated the process in its laboratory in St. Louis. It began field testing Mets’ power-to-gas technology in 2011. Three years later, Electrochaea started constructing a large-scale demonstration facility at a wastewater treatment plant outside Copenhagen, with the treatment plant providing the waste carbon dioxide used in the conversion process. Based on the success of that project, which is called BioCat and went live in June, Electrochaea is building a 10-megawatt plant in Hungary that will be the world’s first commercial-scale power-to-gas plant.

Electrochaea plans to build an additional plant in Switzerland and envisions plants with up to 1,000 megawatts of capacity. Meanwhile, Pacific Gas and Electric Company is building a small demonstration plant at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado.

“Methane could be the primary source for much of society’s energy needs including electricity, heating, industrial processes and transportation,” said Seth Snyder, leader of the Water-Energy-Sustainability Initiative at the Argonne National Laboratory. “Therefore, a robust way to create clean methane from renewable sources has the potential to transform our energy systems.”

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