Patent-Pending Technology Converts “Waste” Carbon Into Valuable Chemicals and Useful Elements


Waste carbon from farms, sewage and different sources will be processed into high-grade bio-based fuels extra simply with a brand new PNNL-developed movement cell. On this animation, the movement cell receives biocrude and wastewater from a hydrothermal liquefaction course of. It then removes carbon from wastewater, permitting the clear water to be reused. The system even generates hydrogen, a priceless gasoline that may be captured, lowering the price of the entire operation. Credit score: Sara Levine | Pacific Northwest Nationwide Laboratory

Patent-pending course of removes biofuel contaminants from wastewater utilizing an additive-free course of that generates hydrogen to gasoline its personal operation

The holy grail of biofuel researchers is to create a self-sustaining course of that converts waste from sewage, meals crops, algae, and different renewable carbon sources into fuels whereas preserving waste carbon out of the environment and water. Though a lot progress has been made in remodeling such trash into usable gasoline, finishing the cycle with clear vitality has confirmed to be a troublesome nut to crack.

A workforce of researchers on the Division of Power’s Pacific Northwest Nationwide Laboratory (PNNL) has now devised a system that accomplishes simply that. The PNNL electrocatalytic oxidation gasoline restoration system converts what was beforehand regarded as unrecoverable, diluted “waste” carbon into priceless chemical compounds whereas additionally producing helpful hydrogen. As a result of renewable vitality is used, the method is carbon-neutral and even probably carbon-negative.

The important thing to creating all of it work is an elegantly designed catalyst that mixes billions of infinitesimally small steel particles and an electrical present to hurry up the vitality conversion at room temperature and stress.

Juan A. Lopez Ruiz PNNL

Juan A. Lopez-Ruiz, a PNNL chemical engineer, led a analysis workforce that lately developed a novel movement cell reactor that makes the trail to renewable gasoline simpler. Credit score: Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest Nationwide Laboratory

“The currently used methods of treating biocrude requires high-pressure hydrogen, which is usually generated from natural gas,” mentioned Juan A. Lopez-Ruiz, a PNNL chemical engineer and venture lead. “Our system can generate that hydrogen itself while simultaneously treating the wastewater at near atmospheric conditions using excess renewable electricity, making it inexpensive to operate and potentially carbon neutral.”

A hungry system

The analysis group examined the system within the laboratory utilizing a pattern of wastewater from an industrial-scale biomass conversion course of for over 200 hours of steady operation with out shedding any effectivity within the course of. The only real constraint was that the analysis workforce’s wastewater pattern had run out.

“It’s a hungry system,” Lopez-Ruiz mentioned. “The reaction rate of the process is proportional to how much waste carbon you are trying to convert. It could run indefinitely if you had wastewater to keep cycling through it.”

The patent-pending system solves a number of issues which have plagued efforts to make biomass an economically viable supply of renewable vitality, based on Lopez-Ruiz.

“We know how to turn biomass into fuel,” Lopez-Ruiz mentioned. “But we still struggle to make the process energy-efficient, economical, and environmentally sustainable—especially for small, distributed scales. This system runs on electricity, which can come from renewable sources. And it generates its own heat and fuel to keep it running. It has the potential to complete the energy recovery cycle.”

“As the electric grid starts to shift its energy sources toward integrating more renewables,” he added, “it makes more and more sense to rely on electricity for our energy needs. We developed a process that uses electricity to power conversion of carbon compounds in wastewater into useful products while removing impurities like nitrogen and sulfur compounds.”

Closing the vitality hole

Hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) is a really environment friendly technique for changing moist waste carbon to gasoline. This course of, in essence, shortens the time required to supply pure fossil fuels by turning moist biomass into energy-dense biocrude oil in hours reasonably than millennia. Nonetheless, the method is incomplete within the sense that the wastewater generated as a part of the method requires additional therapy with the intention to get added worth from what would in any other case be a legal responsibility.

“We realized that same (electro)chemical reaction that removed the organic molecules from wastewater could be also used to directly upgrade the biocrude at room temperature and atmospheric pressure as well,” Lopez-Ruiz mentioned.

That is the place the brand new PNNL course of comes into play. Unrefined biocrude and wastewater will be fed into the system straight from an HTL output stream or different moist waste. The PNNL course of consists of what’s referred to as a movement cell the place the wastewater and biocrude flows by way of the cell and encounters a charged atmosphere created by an electrical present. The cell itself is split in half by a membrane.

Flow Cell Bioreactor PNNL

A brand new patent-pending movement cell bioreactor developed at Pacific Northwest Nationwide Laboratory can purify wastewater (seen right here) and generate hydrogen to assist gasoline the method. Credit score: Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest Nationwide Laboratory

The positively charged half, referred to as an anode, incorporates a skinny titanium foil coated with nanoparticles of ruthenium oxide. Right here, the waste stream undergoes a catalytic conversion, with biocrude being transformed to helpful oils and paraffin. Concurrently, water-soluble contaminants, resembling oxygen and nitrogen-containing compounds, endure a chemical conversion that turns them into nitrogen and oxygen gasses—regular elements of the environment. The wastewater that emerges from the system, with contaminants eliminated, can then be fed again into the HTL course of.

On the negatively charged half of the movement cell, referred to as a cathode, a unique response takes place that may both hydrogenate natural molecules (resembling those in handled biocrude) or generate hydrogen gasoline—an rising vitality supply that the movement cell builders see as a possible supply of gasoline.

“We see the hydrogen byproduct generated by the process as a net plus. When collected and fed into the system as a fuel, it could keep the system running with fewer energy inputs, potentially making it more economical and carbon-neutral than current biomass conversion operations,” mentioned Lopez-Ruiz.

The pace of chemical conversion offers an additional advantage to the system.

“We did a comparison of rates—that is how fast we can remove oxygen from organic molecules with our system as opposed to the energy-intensive thermal removal,” Lopez-Ruiz mentioned. “We obtained more than 100 times higher conversion rates with the electrochemical system at atmospheric conditions than with the thermal system at intermediate hydrogen pressures and temperatures.” These findings had been revealed within the Journal of Utilized Catalysis B: Environmental in November 2020.

Decreasing uncommon Earth steel use

One important drawback of many industrial applied sciences is their dependency on uncommon Earth metals, typically known as platinum group metals. The worldwide provide chain for these parts is especially reliant on outdated extraction applied sciences which are energy-intensive, use monumental quantities of water, and generate hazardous waste. In keeping with the Division of Power, which has made home provide a main precedence, imports account for one hundred pc of america’ provide for 14 of 35 vital supplies and greater than half of 17 others.

The system addresses this drawback by incorporating a singular technique of depositing nanoparticles of the metals liable for the chemical conversion. These particles have a big floor space, which requires much less steel to do its work. “We found that using metal nanoparticles as opposed to metal thin films and foils reduced the metal content and improved the electrochemical performance,” mentioned Lopez-Ruiz. These findings had been lately revealed within the Journal of Utilized Catalysis B: Environmental. The novel catalyst requires 1,000 occasions much less valuable steel, on this case ruthenium, than is often wanted for comparable processes. Particularly, the laboratory-scale movement reactor makes use of an electrode with about 5 to fifteen milligrams of ruthenium, in contrast with about 10 grams of platinum for a comparable reactor.

About these ineffective carbon compounds

The analysis workforce has additionally proven that the PNNL course of can deal with the processing of small water-soluble carbon compounds—byproducts discovered within the water waste stream of present HTL processes—in addition to many different industrial processes. There are a few dozen of those devilishly troublesome to course of small, carbon compounds within the wastewater streams at low concentrations. Till now, there was no cost-effective expertise to deal with them. These short-chain carbon compounds, like propanoic acid and butanoic acid, undergo transformation to fuels, such as ethane, propane, hexane, and hydrogen, during the newly developed process.

A preliminary cost analysis showed the electricity cost required to run the system can be fully offset by running the operation at low voltage, using the propane or butane to generate heat and selling the excess hydrogen generated. These findings were published in the July 2020 issue of the Journal of Applied Electrochemistry.

Battelle, which manages and operates PNNL for the federal government, has applied for a United States patent for the electrochemical process. CogniTek Management Systems (CogniTek), a global company that brings energy products and technology solutions to market, has licensed the technology from PNNL. CogniTek will be integrating the PNNL wastewater treatment technology into patented biomass processing systems that CogniTek and its strategic partners are developing and commercializing. Their goal is the production of biofuels, such as biodiesel and bio jet fuels. In addition to the commercialization agreement, PNNL and CogniTek will collaborate to scale up the wastewater treatment reactor from laboratory scale to demonstration scale.

“We at CogniTek are excited by the opportunity to extend the PNNL technology, in combination with our core patents and patent pending decarbonization technology,” said CogniTek Chief Executive Officer Michael Gurin.

The technology, dubbed Clean Sustainable Electrochemical Treatment—or CleanSET, is available for license by other companies or municipalities interested in developing it for industry-specific uses in municipal wastewater treatment plants, dairy farms, breweries, chemical manufacturers and food and beverage producers. To learn more about how this technology works, or to schedule a meeting with a technology commercialization manager, visit PNNL’s Available Technologies site.

In addition to Lopez-Ruiz, the PNNL research team included Yang Qiu, Evan Andrews, Oliver Gutiérrez and Jamie Holladay. The research was supported by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and the Chemical Transformation Initiative, a Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program at PNNL. Portions of the research were conducted as part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Southern California Gas Company.

References: “Anodic electrocatalytic conversion of carboxylic acids on thin films of RuO2, IrO2, and Pt” by Yang Qiu, Juan A. Lopez-Ruiz, Udishnu Sanyal, Evan Andrews, Oliver Y. Gutiérrez and Jamie D. Holladay, 25 June 2020, Applied Catalysis B: Environmental.
DOI: 10.1016/j.apcatb.2020.119277

“Electrocatalytic valorization into H2 and hydrocarbons of an aqueous stream derived from hydrothermal liquefaction” by Juan A. Lopez-Ruiz, Yang Qiu, Evan Andrews, Oliver Y. Gutiérrez and Jamie D. Holladay, 9 July 2020, Journal of Applied Electrochemistry.
DOI: 10.1007/s10800-020-01452-x

“Electrocatalytic decarboxylation of carboxylic acids over RuO2 and Pt nanoparticles” by Yang Qiu, Juan A. Lopez-Ruiza, Guomin Zhu, Mark H. Engelhard, Oliver Y. Gutiérrez and Jamie D. Holladay, 1 January 2022, Applied Catalysis B: Environmental.
DOI: 10.1016/j.apcatb.2021.121060





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