Bugs Break Wind for Energy Storage

Geek Culture

photo: flickr, photo: flickr, You don’t have to go too far into the countryside to find wind farms providing us with clean and renewable electricity. Despite the promise of renewable energy to solve all of our future energy problems there are still a few problems to be worked out. Not least of which is the understandable reluctance to cover huge areas of the countryside with wind turbines or their sunshine equivalent, solar panels. The other significant problem with renewable energy, in particular solar and wind is a concept known as load balancing. Basically, the electrical grid has to be able to cope with fluctuations in power demand, for example when it is cold or when it gets dark the demand for power increases. This is relatively easy to manage with conventional power plants, but with renewable energy, you can’t make more wind or sunshine just because the electricity demand has increased. Hence load balancing is a big challenge for a renewable based grid.

One way to address this is to store the excess energy produced on very sunny or windy days and to keep it until it is needed during periods of increased demand. The most familiar type of energy storage you’ll come across is a battery. This stores electricity as chemical energy until it is needed when it is converted back into electricity. Now scientists at Pennsylvania State University have developed a new way of storing electricity through the hilarious concept of bugs breaking wind. How can tiny bug farts solve our energy problems? It turns out that when a large collection of single celled organisms (known as a culture) containing mainly Methanobacterium palustre live on the positive electrode of a battery, they use the plentiful supply of electrons to convert carbon dioxide into methane. The methane produced can be collected and stored and when further juice is required by the grid, it can be burned to produce electricity in much the same way as a conventional power plant. Wait though – won’t the burning of the methane produce carbon dioxide, the same nasty gas we are trying to get rid of by using the renewable energy in the first place? It sure will, but the Methanobacterium palustre consume carbon dioxide to produce methane, so the process could be effectively carbon neutral.

Who would have thought the collective breaking of wind of billions of bugs could be so useful?

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