The growing concern for the environment has prompted many scientists to start looking into new and uncharted territories for sustainable solutions. Recently, researchers at the University of Basel have begun to study lakes and how they have the potential to produce energy via biomass.
This research is revolutionary and has the ability to power the world on 100% clean energy. Before we delve deeper into the power of lakes, we must understand what biofuel is and how this is even possible.
Biomass: The Power of the Future
Biomass is a renewable energy that is comprised of stored energy. When living organisms go through the process of photosynthesis – converting the sun’s energy into food – that energy remains in the organism and can be used later on.
Typically found in plants and animals, biomass can be burned directly for heat through a process called direct combustion. Direct combustion is the most common conversion process for biofuel and is used to power homes or generate electricity via steam turbines. The three lesser-common processes are known as thermochemical conversion, chemical conversion, or biological conversion, and is when biomass is converted into a liquid to be used for other purposes such as gasoline. When converted into any of these methods, biomass becomes biofuel.
The research behind biofuel concludes that it is not always the most eco-friendly alternative. In fact, in a peer-reviewed study released by the European Commission, researchers found that out of the 26 different biofuels tested, only 21 of these reduced greenhouse emissions by 30%. Even though these 21 types had shown a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, nearly half of the 26 biofuels had an overall larger environmental impact than that of traditional gasoline. This is attributed to the production process.
Take corn, for example. When corn is produced, it requires a lot of unobstructed land, water, and sometimes fertilizer. The emissions that arise during the production of the corn put the crops in what is considered a carbon debt; when the production produces more emissions than what is saved, resulting in higher environmental impact.
Though this doesn’t mean that biomass should be written off completely. In fact, the energy source can be quite eco-friendly and rather reliant for remote and developing areas around the globe. It is therefore important to note that not all biomasses should be treated equally, and not all biomasses are actually better for the environment. The way in which the biomass is harvested and used can affect its environmental footprint greatly. The most eco-friendly forms come from cooking oil, methanol and methane from wood, and whey.
Lakes: The Future of Methane
The billions of phytoplankton residing in lakes absorb carbon dioxide that is then converted by microbes into methane. The researchers, Maciej Bartosiewicz and Moritz Lehmann, are looking for a way to use this methane and convert it into biofuel for energy purposes.
Bartosiewicz states that lakes and water reservoirs are responsible for nearly 20% of the methane produced in the world - more than enough to power the entire globe’s energy needs. With the many reservoirs situated in Switzerland, the country is believed to be the perfect place to start experimenting with this conversion process. The plan is to utilize a hydrophobic gas-liquid membrane contactor (GLMC) to separate water from the methane concentrate.
This isn’t the first time researchers have thought of extracting methane from lakes and reservoirs. In 2016, situated between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, researchers also had the idea to extract methane and attempt to utilize it for biofuel. However, due to the low concentrations, the process was deemed to be too technically difficult and therefore was dropped. At the University of Basel, new technological advancements allow the conversion process to be done more smoothly and easier than ever before.
Bartosiewicz says, “With our idea, we wanted to start a broad discussion about the potential, feasibility, and risks of a technology like this.” “Until now, no studies have addressed the effects of methane removal on lake ecosystem functioning, but no immediate negative effects can be foreseen with our current understanding.”
The growth of biofuel use in the United States has increased substantially over the past two decades. From 2004 to 2016, biodiesel consumption jumped from just .03 billion gallons to 2.08 billion gallons annually. With these two researchers at the University of Basel working to convert the entire world’s energy usage, these numbers have the potential to rise to unprecedented levels.
These discoveries and technological advancements truly provide a promising outlook for the future of the environment. If Bartosiewicz and Lehmann are successful with this research, then the outcome could be astronomical and alter the future as we know it.
With the implementation of biofuel produced from lakes, the world could begin to switch off of fossil fuels for good. This would dramatically lower human’s environmental footprint and begin to reverse the damaging effects of climate change. Sea levels would no longer be at risk for rising, wildlife would be thriving, the air quality would increase substantially, and humans would be living healthier and happier lives.