Forum Scientiarum

Prof. Dr. Lars Angenent

Carbon recovery in a society that is powered by renewable electricity

I have joined the Center of Applied Geosciences (ZAG) at the University of Tübingen at the rank of Full Professor in Environmental Biotechnology. Here, I will be a Humboldt Professor and I will lead a research group that will optimize carbon recovery from industrial waste gases and organic wastes. In addition, I will start a new research direction in my group on renewable electric power storage. My interdisciplinary team is focusing on engineered systems with microbial catalysts and uses scientific tools from bioprocess engineering, anaerobic microbiology/biotechnology, electrochemistry, environmental engineering, systems biology, and metabolic engineering. Often my team seeks to use clever bioreactor configurations and operating conditions to perform a conversion route that has not been optimized for industrial application thus far.

My team focuses on carbon because in a future society in which we will no longer utilize nonrenewable fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, or oil) for fuel and chemical production, we will still need carbon-based chemicals. In addition, carbon based products can be stored while this is much harder to do for electricity and heat. In my talk, I will focus on three areas: 1) converting carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in synthesis gas (from steel mills) into ethanol and acetate with syngas fermentation; 2) converting organic waste streams into extractable oil that consists of carbon-rich medium-chain carboxylic acids; and 3) converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas into methane with biomethanation. For the third area, electrolyzers produce hydrogen gas first by splitting water. These electrolyzers are powered by renewable electricity during peak production, and thus the technology provides a method to store renewable electricity into the natural gas grid that already has a three-month storage capacity. Finally, I will also give an example how the first two areas can be coupled with another electrochemical technique to produce a carbon-rich aviation fuel from the simple starting gas.

Foto: Robyn Wishna/Cornell University