Social and Environmental Problems
Access to sufficient energy is a key prerequisite for any industrial society.
Nowadays fossil fuels are the dominant energy source. They have however a number of drawbacks:
- Gaseous emissions
The most important emissions the CO2 formed, enhancing the greenhouse effect. However also other emissions like NOx and SO2 are of concern.
The reserves of fossil fuels are finite and suitable reserves are expected to be depleted within a generation, with the exception of the charcoal reserves.
Fossil fuels reserves are concentrated in a small numbers of world regions. Control of these reserves is a prime political issue.
In general terms, energy savings and the use of renewable energy sources are directions for solving these problems.
Our contribution lies in the development of new biological processes for the production of electrical energy, fuels and sustainable heat from residual biomass. This type of biomass, is left over after extraction of valuable (food) ingredients from agricultural products. The use of this type of biomass enhances the economic and social potential of our processes. We use natural biotechnology i.e. we employ the processes as they occur in nature.
Electricity can be produced using a so-called Microbial Fuel Cell, allowing the direct conversion of biomass into electricity i.e. without combustion. This direct conversion is a clean and highly efficient method of electricity production. Conventional fuel cells however can not use residual biomass without expensive and complicated pre-treatment. We aim at using the biocatalytic properties of microbes to directly transfer electrons from the substrate to the electrodes and generate thus electricity. In this way electricity can be produced from any biodegradable material without pre-treatment.
Liquid bio fuels derived from residual biomass is a sustainable transportation fuel. They can be directly used in the current infrastructure by blending with gasoline. Current production of ethanol is based on fermentation of sugars. The use of sugars is expensive and competes with food production. We develop a new biological process using natural occurring bacteria to convert organic acids to ethanol and other fuel alcohols. Organic acids can be easily produced from residual biomass.
Central in our approach is the development of reactors that enable the selection of the right organism for the job. The research is thus centred on lab scale systems where the actual selection of natural micro-organisms takes place and can be studied and steered. Next to this practical research models are needed to describe and develop further these processes.