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Biggest man-made fart ever… and the Germans did it

In the UK, we take non-renewable energy sources (methane which is a natural gas) and turn it into electricity using gas-fired power stations. But some great news for the renewable energy industry is that the Germans have managed to produce a natural gas using man-made methods.

Why is this such good news?

It’s good news because:

  • Storing energy in large amounts is really difficult
  • Renewable energy resources often don't provide power when you need it most

Let’s take a look at some methods of storing renewable energy to find out why they are so inefficient.

Wind power

The wind has an annoying habit of blowing when it wants to, not when we want it to.

Wind Farm

Lithium batteries

A lithium ion battery big enough to store the energy from the output of one coal-fired power station for just one day would weigh 35,000 tonnes. It would need more than a third of the world's small reserves of lithium to make it. So, that’s very impracticable.

35000 Tonnes

Pumped-storage power station

The only really effective method of large scale energy storage is the pumped-storage power station. Water is pumped up a mountain to a high lake during periods of energy surplus, such as when the wind blows strongly. The water is then allowed to flow downhill through turbine generators to release the gravitational potential energy and provide us with electricity during periods of calm.

They work really well, but are very costly large scale engineering projects. They use up large amounts of the natural environment and have a fairly limited storage capacity.

Not just famous for sausages!

The largest pumped storage power station in Britain is in Dinorwig in North Wales. It is a colossal machine and will produce about 288MWatts, but only for about 7 hours, when all the water has to be pumped back up to the top reservoir. For this kind of power station you also need a convenient mountain and miles of cables. Not really a terrific solution, particularly if you happen to live in Holland, which is as flat as a pancake!

The new technology uses the surplus electricity to electrolyse water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is a really useful fuel in its own right but is very difficult and costly to handle. It needs to be cooled to extremely low temperatures and compressed to reduce its volume so that it can be stored.

Dinorwig

Where is it stored?

The tanks that store it are expensive and heavy, and all that processing requires even more energy. It all becomes impractical again unless you have a budget like NASA and want to use it to power a space shuttle.

The space shuttle

Man-made natural gas – is that even possible?

German scientists have succeeded in taking the hydrogen and reacting it with carbon dioxide to produce methane. Meaning, they have produced 'man-made' natural gas! The really smart thing about this is that the entire infrastructure to store and pipe natural gas around is already available in most countries. It has been built by the gas companies to let us heat our homes and cook our food. The storage capacity of the natural gas network in countries like Britain or Germany is vast. More than 200Terrawatt hours. More than enough to store all the surplus energy we can ever produce.

Methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide

What does the future hold?

If the technology can be made to work efficiently, and on a large scale, the future for gas looks extremely rosy. At the moment the efficiency is over 60 per cent - not bad. That is certainly a great deal better than what we do at the moment which is simply throw the surplus energy away.

The big questions:

How do we make unpredictable sources of energy like wind and wave power provide power for 100 per cent of the time?

Why can't we store electricity?

How can we store energy in large amounts?

What is electrolysis?