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Alternative energy is great, but our infrastructure isn't exactly equipped to handle it. So scientists are coming up with other ways to use it, including turning it into food.

Hosted by: Stefan Chin

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Sources: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421511000292
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610366/relying-on-renewables-alone-would-significantly-raise-the-cost-of-overhauling-the-energy/
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611683/the-25-trillion-reason-we-cant-rely-on-batteries-to-clean-up-the-grid/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960148115301610
https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2015/04/25/gas-guzzlers
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112298-food-made-from-natural-gas-will-soon-feed-farm-animals-and-us/
https://www.ft.com/content/f520cebc-dbe5-11e6-9d7c-be108f1c1dce
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC239451/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1075996417300446
Thanks to Skillshare for supporting this episode of SciShow. [INTRO ].

There are lots of reasons to want renewable sources of energy. They can reduce smog, create jobs, and lower our environmental impacts… which we all pretty much agree are good things to do.

But right now, there are limits to how much energy we can get from things like solar and wind— and not just because we need to build more facilities. Power grids aren’t equipped to handle the boom and bust nature of these sources right now. So scientists are looking for new ways to store power, including turning it into fuel.

This technology is called power to gas, and it’s still under development. But someday, it could revolutionize the energy industry. Around the world, countries are moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources, which capture energy from natural processes that can’t be depleted, like solar or wind power.

After all, fossil fuels are harmful to the environment in many ways, like exacerbating climate change. Not to mention they’re running out—which is, you know, the trouble with anything that’s not renewable. But there’s a catch to this ideal world: Renewable energies tend to be inconsistent sources of electricy.

They really depend on location and time. For instance, it’s easier for tropical locales to rely on solar power. On sunny days in places that currently have solar farms, there’s more than enough solar energy streaming in to produce the electricity they need.

But even the sunniest parts of the world get clouds and rain. On those days, solar farms that typically generate enough electricity might not make the cut. So engineers are trying to suss out how to make sure energy production can keep up with energy demand, an idea called balancing the grid.

And for renewable energies, that mostly means finding a way to capture and store the extra power they produce on good days to make up for less productive ones. Batteries might seem like an obvious solution, because they’re used for power storage in everything from Furbies and flashlights to high-end cars. But making and maintaining batteries that can store that much energy is expensive.

For the US, we’re talking trillions of dollars expensive. And that’s on top of the price of building renewable energy facilities in the first place. But there’s another way: banking electricity in energy sources like gases, which are much cheaper to manage and fit into existing energy infrastructures in lots of places.

This idea is called Power to Gas, or P2G. And making the gas is pretty straightforward. Electricity is just moving electrons.

And when you apply an electric current to water, something useful happens: the water molecules split into their atomic components: hydrogen and oxygen. This is known as electrolysis. And a lot of P2G research has focused on making it as efficient as possible.

Usually, this happens by putting chemicals called electrolytes in the water that help electrons move around easily. The oxygen gas can be bottled for use, like in a hospital or welding torches, or simply released into the air. But the hydrogen gas is the real prize.

Some places are well-equipped to store and use it directly, like areas with a lot of infrastructure for hydrogen cars. In a lot of cases, though, countries will want to create something more useful for their current grid. That likely means combining hydrogen gas with carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide to create methane — the main component of natural gas.

That carbon dioxide could come from the atmosphere or other emission sources, directly reducing the total amount of CO2 we put into the air. And while the methane produced would still emit carbon dioxide when burned, it’s less than burning coal or oil. Now, renewable energies can be so productive at times that they more than make up for lulls.

So all that extra extra energy can be used in other ways… like to make food. Researchers are tinkering with the idea of using gas from P2G to generate food for fish, livestock, pets, and even us humans. For decades, microbiologists have known about methanotrophic bacteria —organisms that feed on single-carbon compounds like methane.

But it’s only in the past 20 years or so that scientists have started growing bacteria to process and stick into animal feeds, dubbing them bioprotein. Kind of like Vegemite… but not yeast. And while most test facilities use the methane from natural gas, some engineers think using methane produced by P2G would be even better.

Not only that, but the oxygen from hydrolysis could be fed into the bacterial cultures to help them grow, because they need it too. And the carbon dioxide the bacteria produce could be used to make more methane in a big, gassy cycle! Right now, the methane for bioprotein comes from natural gas, though companies are looking to switch that to sewage sludge or other decomposing materials.

That would make bioprotein more sustainable, but way less appetizing. Using power-to-gas methane would solve the sustainability issue, but also make the idea of bioprotein in processed foods or protein powders more palatable. So basically… we could get buff by eating wind or sunlight.

Which is pretty cool. Of course, all of this relies on really efficient power-to-gas conversion, and we’re not quite there yet. But researchers are working on the process every day, so it might not be too long before.

P2G is integrated into power grids worldwide. It takes hard work from a lot of scientists to develop new technologies like Power to. Gas, and that sort of teamwork is true for any field.

So if you’re doing collaborative, creative work like us, you might want to check out this Skillshare class on Creating Design Systems, taught by creative director Dan Mall. He uses examples like the New York City Transit Authority to talk about design manuals that are easy to use and make communication easier across teams. And he teaches you how to create your own to streamline productivity!

Right now, Skillshare is offering SciShow viewers 2 months of unlimited access to over 20,000 classes, including this one! Just follow the link in the description to take advantage of this offer. And while you’re learning about productivity, making video games, or painting, you’re also supporting SciShow.

So, thanks! [ outro ].