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Inside View: June 2019

Perpetual energy


May 14, 2019
By Gary Jones

As a school student, did you ever wonder ‘why am I learning this stuff?’ Apart from ‘integration’ and ‘differentiation’ math that is, which, unless you’re a civil engineer, you’ve likely never used again. As much as I enjoyed school, I wondered this too often.

I was recently chatting with a group of greenhouse growers/owners about topics for workshops or study days. Inevitably, we got around to talking ‘energy’ and then the serious issue in BC of the fractured northern gas pipeline. While testing pipe integrity along its length, it’s still only at 85 per cent capacity and likely won’t be 100 per cent for a long time.

This means crazy gas prices. Commonly $200/GJ for one February weekend, and $220 the highest I’ve heard. At the same time, north of the fracture, I understand prices are as low as $1/GJ. Imagine.

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Reduced gas flow through this (only) pipeline means less capacity to fill storage, which is running low. At the same time, it appears that some of the gas is being sold to the US. Compounding this, BC is experiencing a lower than normal snow pack, with consequently reduced water run-off and less capacity for hydroelectric generation. It’s a perfect energy storm.

Dependency on the northern BC pipeline has sparked (no pun intended) discussion of a ‘virtual pipeline’. Trucking it in. A full trailer is left behind at the customer and the empty trailer taken away. Think Danish carts for bedding plants.

Some have said that the industry is in love with the pipeline. Actually, it’s the gas we love, not the pipeline. The pipe is a means to an end. Maybe we should go ‘off-grid’ for gas. I was doodling about ways to suck carbon out of the air (great for doing our part to reduce atmospheric CO2) and combine it with hydrogen to make methane (CH4, the major component of natural gas). A whip around the internet, and up pops the Sabatier Reaction.

This process was discovered by “the French chemist Paul Sabatier and Senderens in 1897”1–the underlying process for the manufacturing of synthetic natural gas. The Sabatier process involves the reaction of hydrogen with carbon dioxide. But there is a little downside, since it requires elevated temperatures (300–400°C) and high pressures in the presence of a catalyst (usually nickel) to produce methane and water.

Today, technology can improve on the process in ways unknown by Sabatier back in 1897. “It has been seen in a renewable-energy-dominated energy system to use the excess electricity generated by wind, solar photovoltaic, hydro, marine current, etc. to make hydrogen via water electrolysis and the subsequent application of the Sabatier reaction to make methane.”1 So, electrolysis of water using renewable electricity to create hydrogen (which can partly be used directly in fuel cells) and the addition of carbon dioxide CO2 (via Sabatier process) to create methane. Win-win. If sufficient artificial methane were produced, it could be put back into the gas pipeline, and used like we do to generate electricity and heat (combined heat and power), overcoming low points of renewable energy production.

Scientists at Paris Diderot University believe they’ve found a more efficient catalyst to turn CO2 into methane. “The catalyst the researchers discovered is similar to the chlorophyll in a plant, only instead of turning CO2 into oxygen it turns it into methane. The molecule uses energy from the sun to break up the CO2 molecule into carbon and oxygen atoms, which then combine with hydrogen to form methane and water.”2

“The researchers still have a long way to go before their new catalyst is used commercially.” “If this catalyst can become even slightly more efficient, in the near future we could be producing cheap methane literally out of thin air.”2

Here’s my concept. Combine Sabatier’s process with highly efficient catalysts, modern renewable energy and compact engineering, to build a shipping container-sized ‘plug-and-play’ system to be dropped off at a greenhouse to provide renewable gas, electricity, heat and reduce atmospheric CO2. I’ll take 10 per cent of the royalties. I knew I should have listened at school.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabatier_reaction
  2. Ars Technica, referenced in Popular Mechanics, June 2017, at: https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/green-tech/news/a27412/catalyst-turn-co2-into-methane/


Gary Jones is co-chair of Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, BC. He sits on several industry committees and welcomes comments at

Gary.Jones@kpu.ca.


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