In the Labs: Storage Material Could Put Manure In Your Gas Tank

methanestoragematerial1.jpgA team of scientists have announced the discovery of a new material consisting of “nanoscopic cages” that are particularly good at trapping and storing methane. The research, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, suggests that the compound has a 28 percent better ability to store methane than the current target the Department of Energy set back in 2000 and beats the previous record set back in February 2007.

That storage ability could help push methane-powered vehicles out of Europe and pull biomethane (biogas) into the fevered discussion surrounding biofuels. Right now, methane powered cars already exist in some European countries. Volvo originally launched their so-called BiFuel technology back in 1995, but it didn’t seriously catch on.

These cars have two fuel tanks, one for storing gasoline and the other for storing methane. The engines run primarily on methane but can switch to traditional gasoline when they run out of methane, which certainly seems likely, given that there are only about 1,000 methane stations across Europe.

Beyond a limited infrastructure, the other problem with methane is that it’s a fossil fuel, too, and with an even worse greenhouse gas profile than carbon dioxide. Mix it with a few other “anes” like ethane and propane and you get natural gas.

But there’s also an emerging solution that we’ve covered in the past: biogas. Biogas is generated by microbes breaking down a methane-rich source like a manure pile or a landfill through anaerobic digestion. It can be made from waste streams, and is not just carbon-neutral but also opens up new possibilities for sustainable farms.

There’s a double-bonus to using biogas, as it prevents manure from running off into streams and causing problems and could provide sustainable energy. It’s a well-known process, but until people started thinking about sustainability, it didn’t seem worth the trouble.

This friendly guide to building a methane digester, which can convert manure into methane, ends at the most important spot: what to do with the stuff once you’ve got it. Like the hydrogen storage material we reported on last year, the new storage technology could make methane tanks smaller for cars as well as for filling stations.

Some sources estimate that the manure produced by a single cow could be turned into the equivalent of 200 liters of gasoline. There are approximately 100 million head of cattle in the U.S. alone, which could translate to 5.3 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent. That’s not the complete answer to replacing the 140 billion gallons of gas Americans use each year, but it could help.

At the very least, it shows that new storage compound shows that increasing understanding of the shapes and behavior of particles at the nanoscale is likely to revolutionize fuel storage. Over the coming decades, scientists will get better at discovering which “cages” are most appropriate for storing each fuel.


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