What can I say? I have two boys who keep my head in the gutter sometimes. Luckily, our little girl balances out their crudeness to some degree.
What we’re actually talking about here is the conversion of excess solar and wind power into renewable natural gas via ancient microbes called a methanogenic archaea.
That’s a mouthful, so let’s unpack that.
When the sun shines bright or the wind blows strong in states with a high penetration of renewable energy, that supply of clean electricity often exceeds the instantaneous demand from homeowners and businesses.
As such, it is often curtailed, or not brought onto the grid. It is wasted. (Gulp.)
There are ways to store it today. Pumped hydro, lithium-ion batteries, or longer distance transmission lines. But all of those pose challenges from a siting, cost, or timeline perspective.
Enter methane-producing bacteria that have been around for more than a billion years. (Drop the mic.)
After multiple years of partnership among Southern California Gas, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and Electrochaea, a German startup bringing these bacteria to the private sector, a large-scale bioreactor has been built, and this technology is progressing towards commercialization.
As for the actual process, the solar or wind power will be used to run a low-temperature water electrolyzer to produce (“strip”) hydrogen from water. Then this hydrogen is fed to the bacteria which mix it with carbon dioxide in a wondrous chemical alchemy to produce methane, which can be purified and fed into natural gas pipelines.
So, why might this matter to Entrepreneurs for Impact?
First, it’s freaking cool. It reminds me of the spirit behind the science media company I Fucking Love Science, which for some reason changed its name to IFL Science!
Second, it’s a reminder of the need to be multidisciplinary, whether that’s training yourself to be “fluent” in various fields, or achieving that goal by building a diverse team. To the topic at hand, it’s unlikely that a team of only electrical engineers could have come up with this “engineering meets biology” innovation.
Third, it’s a great example of orthogonal thinking à la Peter Diamandis (physician, author, and founder of the XPRIZE Foundation), which can be described as harnessing ideas from many spheres to create unexpected solutions. Or similarly, think of it as synthetic thinking à la Peter Drucker (father of modern management), which can be described as drawing from many seemingly unrelated fields to solve complex challenges.