Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Man Makes Mother Nature Look Like a Lazy Maid

In the forest world we came to know
There stood an Emerald Tree
Whose beauty did bestow
Tall and strong
Rich textured bark
Emerald leaves
Upon the sun shone
Soft and bright

"The Emerald Tree,:  Matthew Brackley 

Over the past few months alternative energy news feeds have been abuzz over scientific progress in creating artificial photosynthesis.  The idea of a man-made leaf is not new.  Researchers have been tinkering around with various elements of artificial photosynthesis for well over a decade.  However, scientists at Harvard University have made some interesting progress that has given the artificial leaf new appeal  -  economic viability for production of transportation fuel.

Now that I have your attention, let’s take a look at how Harvard’s leaf works, at least on the laboratory bench.

Harvard's Bionic Leaf
Harvard’s man-made ‘fuel’ leaf is a two-part system partnering a microbe called Ralstonia eutropha with a photovoltaic cell.  Called R. eutropha for short, this microbe is a soil bacterium that metabolizes hydrogen.  Working together the cell and microbe perform the chemical equivalent of reverse combustion, turning.  First the photovoltaic cell using energy from sunlight to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen molecules.    In turn the R. eutropha uses the hydrogen  as energy to process carbon molecules into an alcohol called isopropanol.  The good folks at Harvard think the microbes could turn out other chemicals, but isopropanol or rubbing alcohol could be a good start as it can be used as a fuel much like ethanol.  They call the system a ‘bionic leaf.’ 

Anyone who follows the alternative fuel sector probably recognizes in this short description, processes that are well proven, even common place.  They are right.  However, the scientists at Harvard have brought a few new tricks to their man-made leaf system that makes Mother Nature look like a lazy maid.  Harvard’s ‘fuel’ leaf gets 216 milligrams of isopropanol per liter of water. 

Part of the efficiency is due to Harvard’s approach to grooming its R. eutropha and then starving the specialized microbes to the point that when they are finally put into a container with the recently split hydrogen, they feed directly on it to process isopropanol.  Surprisingly, the microbes function even when housed in the same container as the water-splitting device.  With the water splitter powered by the photovoltaic cell it makes for a tidy system translating sunlight into a liquid fuel suitable for transportation fuel.

Before investors get too enthusiastic, note that this system has been proven to work only on a laboratory bench.  Ask anyone in the cellulosic ethanol industry and you will probably learn that the leap from the lab to production facility is a long one.  Few university scientists are qualified to go leaping so that probably means Harvard needs to partner with a strong technology developer if the world is to benefit from its ‘bionic leaf.’  Every fuel cell developer in the world has to be eyeing the technology.    Few have the financial resources to make an investment and even fewer who might have the skills to bring it to successful commercial operation.  All of them should be worried about whether this new technology pairing could supplant the fuel cells.

The scientists behind the ‘bionic leaf’ published an article about their work in the February 2015 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  I think it will be interesting to see where Harvard goes with this technology.  At least one of the team members has comments about perfecting the system for greater efficiency. 

One of the chemists at Harvard had set up shop as Sun Catalytix to search for the right catalysts for splitting water.  Sun Catalytix last made public news of its financial situation back in 2010, when the group completed a $9.5 million Series B round led by Tata Limited and Polaris Venture Partners.  The company had made progress, claiming it could produce solar panels that could produce hydrogen from water at about $7.00 per kilogram.  Unfortunately, that is not competitive with incumbent methods of producing hydrogen from methane at about $1.00 per kilogram.  The company dropped its hydrogen-from-water plans to take up flow battery development.  That apparently is more promising.  In 2014, Lockheed Martin bought out Sun Catalytix technology with the intention of moving forward with the flow battery technology in Lockheed's microgrids for military base applications. 


Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.


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