Entropic energy offers a tremendous resource available from the salinity difference between freshwater and seawater, but this energy has yet to be efficiently captured and stored. Penn State’s Bruce E. Logan, Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering has demonstrated that di-hydrogen gas can be produced in a single process by capturing the salinity driven energy together with organic matter degradation using exoelectrogenic bacteria.

Kappe says with no overstating here, “This system could produce hydrogen anyplace that there is wastewater near seawater. It uses no grid electricity and is completely carbon neutral. It is an inexhaustible source of energy.”

Logan with postdoctoral fellow Younggy Kim use microbial electrolysis cells that produce hydrogen for the basis of the development whereas previously to produce hydrogen, the fuel cells required some electrical input.

The study results were published in the Sept. 19 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team concludes the abstract by saying, “These results show that pure hydrogen gas can efficiently be produced from virtually limitless supplies of seawater and river water and biodegradable organic matter.”

Bacterial Hydrolysis Cell With RED Stack

The key to these microbial electrolysis cells is reverse-electrodialysis or RED that extracts energy from the ionic differences between salt water and fresh water. A RED stack consists of alternating ion exchange membranes – positive and negative – with each RED contributing additively to the electrical output.

For RED technology to hydrolyze water – splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen – requires 1.8 volts, which would in practice require about 25 pairs of membranes and increase pumping resistance.  But combining RED technology with exoelectrogenic bacteria – the bacteria that consume organic material and produce an electric current – reduced the number of RED stacks to only five membrane pairs.

Logan points up the problem, “People have proposed making electricity out of RED stacks. But you need so many membrane pairs and are trying to drive an unfavorable reaction.”

The team’s cells were between 58 and 64 percent efficient and produced between 0.8 to 1.6 cubic meters of hydrogen for every cubic meter of liquid through the cell each day. The researchers estimated that only about 1 percent of the energy produced in the cell was needed to pump water through the system.

Previous work with microbial electrolysis cells showed that they could, by themselves, produce about 0.3 volts of electricity, but not the 0.414 volts needed to generate hydrogen in those fuel cells. Adding less than 0.2 volts of outside electricity released the hydrogen. Now, by incorporating 11 membranes – five membrane pairs that produce about 0.5 volts – the cells produce hydrogen.

Logan says in overlooking the modern situation, “The added voltage that we need is a lot less than the 1.8 volts necessary to hydrolyze water. Biodegradable liquids and cellulose waste are abundant and with no energy in and hydrogen out we can get rid of wastewater and by-products. This could be an inexhaustible source of energy.”

That’s a pretty broad statement and relies on a controlled waste steam.  But the cost of energy from current sources suggests the idea may have the ability t break out into marketing.

The other main question is the cost of production units and operating expense.  That could be the make or break of this kind of idea.  The team’s research used platinum as a catalyst on the cathode, but subsequent experimentation showed that a non-precious metal catalyst, molybdenum sulfide, had 51 percent energy efficiency.  That’s giving up on the order of 10% – not such a huge difference.

Lets encourage the team to keep going.  The resource for the bacteria feeding and the salted side of the water are nearly free and available nearly everywhere.  This just might work – and may even be automated at low cost.  Paired to a combustor for heat or a low cost fuel cell for electrical energy  –  Free Energy just might be a fully credible idea.


2 Comments so far

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