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NREL Marks Partner Forum With Dedication of Bioreactor

Aug. 22, 2019

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL’s) annual Partner Forum this month proved the ideal opportunity to dedicate a bioreactor that’s the first of its kind in the United States.

The hydrogen-to-methane bioreactor is the result of a partnership with Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) of Los Angeles and Electrochaea, a German company that has erected similar devices overseas.

A group of people cut a ribbon to dedicate a bioreactor at NREL.

NREL staff and partners officially dedicate the first hydrogen to methane bioreactor in the U.S. Pictured, from left to right: NREL Director Martin Keller, DOE Fuel Cell Technologies Office Director Sunita Satyapal, Electrochaea CTO and managing director Doris Hafenbradl, SoCalGas Technology Development Manager Ron Kent, SocCalGas Senior Director for Business Development Yuri Freedman, and NREL researchers Kevin Harrison and Nancy Dowe. Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Installed outside the laboratory’s Energy Systems Integration Facility, the bioreactor uses a selectively evolved microorganism that feeds on renewable hydrogen produced at NREL and a diet of carbon dioxide. In turn, the microscopic creatures produce pipeline-quality methane. SoCalGas chose NREL to assess the commercial viability of using this technology to store energy.

“Renewable methane is a key stepping stone to synthetic liquid fuels,” Bill Tumas told the crowd gathered near the bioreactor. Tumas is NREL’s associate laboratory director for Materials and Chemical Science and Technology.

About 30 people attended the dedication ceremony, which was capped with a ribbon-cutting and tours. Among those present was Laurens Mets, a University of Chicago professor who developed the methane-producing microorganism and licensed the technology to Electrochaea.

The microorganism, known as Methanothermobacter thermautotrophicus, is a thermophile, meaning it thrives in hot environments. The temperature inside the bioreactor is about 150°F.

“We’re very excited about this project,” said NREL Director Martin Keller, whose Ph.D. involved work with thermophiles. “For me, as a microbiologist, I love this because it’s what I’ve done in my science.”

The Partner Forum event brought together several NREL partners, including two SoCalGas executives: Yuri Freedman, the utility’s senior director for business development; and Ron Kent, its technology development manager. “For me, few things are as exciting as seeing this come to fruition,” Freedman told the crowd.

Other speakers included Doris Hafenbradl, chief technology officer and managing director of Electrochaea; and Sunita Satyapal, director of DOE’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office. Satyapal said “this project is an important part of DOE’s H2@Scale initiative to enable larges-cale production, delivery, storage and utilization of hydrogen across sectors.”

In her remarks, Hafenbradl recognized Nancy Dowe and Kevin Harrison, the two NREL scientists behind the project. “Nancy and Kevin have been absolutely fabulous in getting this project going,” she said.

Harrison’s expertise in splitting water to make hydrogen proved instrumental to the bioreactor project, while Dowe lent her talents to growing the needed microorganisms. After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the two researchers provided a tour of the bioreactor and the hydrogen laboratory.