Biofuel researchers have continually worked to develop a self-sufficient technique for converting renewable carbon sources into fuels while excluding carbon from our environment and water. Despite significant advances, ending the cycle with clean energy has proven difficult. Now a group of researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have developed a system that does just that. The PNNL electrocatalytic oxidation fuel recovery system converts dilute waste carbon into valuable compounds while producing usable hydrogen previously thought to be unrecoverable. The process is CO2 neutral or even CO2 negative as it uses renewable energy.
An elegantly designed catalyst combines billions of tiny metal particles and an electric current to accelerate energy conversion at room temperature and pressure.
Juan A. Lopez-Ruiz, a PNNL chemical engineer and project leader, said current methods for treating biocrude oil require the use of high-pressure hydrogen, which is typically generated from natural gas. This system can produce hydrogen while treating wastewater at near-atmospheric temperatures using excess renewable energy, making it cost-effective to run and potentially carbon neutral.
The research team put the system through its paces in the laboratory, using a wastewater sample from an industrial-scale biomass conversion process for over 200 hours of continuous operation without loss of efficiency. The only limitation was that the research team’s wastewater sample had run out.
The patent-pending system solves several problems that have plagued efforts to make biomass an economically viable source of renewable energy, according to Lopez-Ruiz.
Lopez-Ruiz said that while people understand how to turn biomass into fuel, they continue to struggle to make the process energy-efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable, especially on small, distributed scales. However, this new system will be powered by electricity that can be generated from renewable sources. It also produces its own heat and fuel to keep going. It can potentially complete the energy recovery cycle.
The Clean Sustainable Electrochemical Treatment or CleanSET technology is available for licensing by other companies or municipalities interested in further developing it for industry-specific applications in municipal wastewater treatment plants, dairy farms, breweries, chemical manufacturers, and food and beverage manufacturers.