Could Bacteria Be the New Workforce in the Hydrogen Factory of the Future?

MicroPro GmbH in Gommern is researching regenerative hydrogen production from biomass

The idea of using hydrogen as a source of energy has been explored for over 100 years. However, it is only now that it has become efficient and economical to implement this concept thanks to the development of the necessary technology, says microbiologist Martin Wagner. His biotechnology company MicroPro in Gommern, near Magdeburg, has developed a process that produces hydrogen by fermenting biomass.

Wagner, who is Managing Director of MicroPro GmbH, has adopted a quote from Galileo as the motto for his professional life: “Curiosity is the key to solving any problem.” He says, “I am motivated first and foremost by curiosity – not by economic considerations.” That doesn’t mean he will let his drive for research lead his company into troubled waters – on the contrary. Although it is a small business, MicroPro is one of the most innovative and creative biotechnology companies in Saxony-Anhalt. It was founded on the basis of considerable specialist expertise. In the GDR era, the microbiological laboratory was part of the Research Institute for the Exploration and Promotion of Oil and Natural Gas, which meant it also belonged to the Oil and Natural Gas Combine that had its headquarters in Gommern. After 1990, the Combine continued operation under the name Erdöl-Erdgas Gommern GmbH. Martin’s parents, Dr. Manfred Wagner and Dorothea Wagner, founded the spin-off MicroPro GmbH as a microbiological working area in 1996, drawing on their many years of experience in the specialist areas of geomicrobiology and technical microbiology and their international contacts. At that time, Martin was studying microbiology at university in Greifswald and was writing his dissertation on this subject area – despite the fact that (or perhaps even because) as a child and as a teenager, he came to learn about the thrilling life of microbes on earth from tales told to him by his father, rather than through first-hand experience. The work being carried out at the Combine was strictly confidential, as it related to the geological exploration of oil and natural gas deposits in the whole of the GDR and Eastern Europe.

Tapping into new areas of research

Knowing that “curiosity is the key to solving any problem”, Martin wanted to tap into his own, new areas of research when he joined MicroPro in 1997, while still maintaining its extensive portfolio of services for microbiological analysis. One such area he had in mind was contaminated soil. “One particular focus of our laboratory research as part of this was bacteria that break down hydrocarbons,” he says. This experience has made his laboratory a sought-after partner in the HYPOS Network (Hydrogen Power Storage & Solutions East Germany) for all things related to bacterial processes, such as those in underground hydrogen storage systems. Martin made a conceptual connection to bacteria that produce hydrogen. A research project into the possible uses of wood as a sustainable raw material revealed that, under certain conditions, hydrogen is released in large quantities during the fermentation process. This discovery was made 20 years ago. “It is always uncertain whether a research project will lead to financial gain, but I am often willing to take the risk,” says Martin. After all, every bit of knowledge gained is an asset in and of itself.

This case was no exception. His laboratory team had put hydrogen-producing bacteria on the back burner until a problem came along that needed solving with some advice from Galileo. Following the Fukushima reactor accident in 2011, Germany decided to phase out nuclear power, thus necessitating an energy transition. What with the German government’s climate program, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases by 55% by 2030 compared with 1990, hydrogen was once more in the spotlight as a source of energy for the future. “The idea is over 100 years old,” says Martin. Now the question was what technology to use to produce hydrogen in an environmentally-friendly and economical way. “Why not use bacteria? They even work for free!”

HyPerFerment Project

One year ago, MicroPro GmbH began intensive research again with support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and incorporated specialists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg into the HyPerFerment Project as scientific experts. The IFF sees the HyPerFerment process for the continual production of green hydrogen as an important building block in the hydrogen factory of the future. In terms of plant construction, Streicher Anlagenbau GmbH & Co. KG from Gommern is a competent partner. The company designs and builds innovative plants for gas engineering, tank construction, refinery engineering, biogas supply and building services engineering.

The new fermentation process has now been successfully tested on a pilot-plant scale. A gas mixture of hydrogen and carbon dioxide is produced in a special fermentation process as a metabolic product of the organisms used. “When bacteria are used, there is no unnecessary energy loss caused by additional conversion stages such as electrolysis,” says Martin. He explains that once the carbon dioxide has been separated, eight to fifteen kilograms of pure hydrogen can be produced from a tonne of organic waste products. A plant with a volume of 1,500 cubic meters could produce enough hydrogen to operate around 1,400 fuel cell vehicles.

A home-grown energy supply

The HyPerFerment process is being integrated into biogas plants as a preliminary stage, which is a clear indication that it can be put into practice. Corn silage, for example, can be used without negatively influencing subsequent biogas production. The effect is quite the opposite: according to Martin, previous measurement data shows that the process makes the substrates easier to digest afterwards and increases methane production. A pilot plant will soon be built and is due to go into operation in the autumn of next year. “In terms of biogas plants, there are innovative operators in Saxony-Anhalt who are willing to take risks and invest in good ideas,” he maintains.

The new fermentation process could also be used with organic waste material. By this, Martin means coffee, apple leftovers, bran or molasses, a processed waste product from whey. He explains his vision: “This method could allow farms to produce their own energy for their own vehicles.” Of one thing he is sure: “Biohydrogen generated by fermentation will play a significant role in the decentralized production of hydrogen.”

Author: Kathrain Graubaum/IMG Saxony-Anhalt

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