Carbon-neutral natural gas? A lab breakthrough but ...

A microbe can turn wind and solar electricity into natural gas while sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But it's commercial feasibility is not yet tested.

David Vincent/AP/File
This March file photo shows a general view of a Aliade 150 wind turbine, the largest in France, erected in Le Carnet. Stanford and Penn State university researchers have discovered a microbe that can turn electricity from renewable sources into methane, a type of natural gas.

I’ve been working with new energy inventions and their creators for almost 15 years now.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a new technology described as “the Holy Grail”:  solving all of the world’s problems forever.

Well, here’s the newest one using the Holy Grail cliche:  a supposedly carbon-neutral method of using microbes to convert electricity into natural gas.

Thanks to an article written by Brita Belli of Ecomagination at GE (NYSE: GE), I was pointed to the recently-reported work of a team of researchers led by Alfred Spormann at Stanford University and Bruce Logan of Penn State University.  These researchers have determined that an organism called Methanobacterium palustre, when submerged in water on an electrically-charged cathode, will produce methane (i.e., natural gas, CH4) — supposedly at an 80% efficiency rate.

The carbon-neutrality of this approach stems from (1) using surplus electricity generation from non-emitting wind or solar and (2) the microbe extracts the carbon atom for the methane from the CO2 in the atmosphere.

So, in theory, one can make an infinite supply of a relatively clean fossil-fuel from renewable electricity by sucking carbon out of the air.  And, given the extensive natural gas pipeline, storage and distribution network, this fuel could be used for baseload power generation, traditional space/water heating and cooking purposes, and even transportation (e.g., natural gas vehicles).

The catch:  as is often the case with early discoveries in university labs, the researchers don’t know how to scale the technology and achieve consistent/stable results at commercially-useful levels.  The economics are also highly uncertain.

Don’t hold your breath.  This type of invention could take a very very long time to turn into something that’s viable for the energy marketplace.  As a long-time executive from one of the supermajors once said to me, it takes 12-24 months to really prove something at the next order of magnitude — and in energy, it’s usually several orders of magnitudes of expansion from the laboratory to the field.  Thus, what seems like an overnight success story usually has a decade or more of development behind it.

So, while this discovery might turn out to be the Holy Grail — and it definitely seems worth monitoring — one should not get too excited just yet.  There are a lot of potential hurdles to be overcome, and some of them may not be surmounted.  Even if the technology develops favorably, it’s a long way from being ready for prime-time.

In the meantime, this is the only Holy Grail to which I will pay attention.

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