In the Future, Will Natural Gas Compete With Manufactured Gas?

Natural gas is produced from the ground now, but maybe not forever.

pilot plant in Switzerland to turn hydrogen and carbon dioxide into synthetic gas
Electrochaea is a startup company whose microbial-based process was used at this pilot plant in Switzerland to turn hydrogen and carbon dioxide into synthetic gas. Source: Electrochaea.

Baker Hughes has invested in a German startup that has developed a method using microbes to turn carbon dioxide and hydrogen into “low-carbon synthetic natural gas.”

It amounts to a small wager on another possible vision for the future of energy.

In this low-carbon scenario, there will industrial facilities making hydrogen using surplus electricity from renewable sources and carbon dioxide captured from industrial emissions to create methane (CH4).

Technically speaking, the company, Electrochaea, has shown the “power-to-gas” process is possible at a pilot plant in Switzerland, along with several partners from business and academia.

The technique has struggled to gain traction, likely because it is difficult to imagine a way to economically justify using cutting-edge industrial technology to make methane in a world awash in gas from wells, many drilled with bits from Baker Hughes.

For Baker Hughes, the undisclosed amount of investment in the startup adds to its growing portfolio of products and services “across the carbon dioxide value chain.”

Those include the acquisition last year of Compact Carbon Capture (3C) that added a more-efficient carbon-separation method to its product line. The modular units can be added to industrial facilities to capture CO2 for users like Electrochaea, whose green claim will require removing at least as much carbon as its product can emit.

The German company’s dauntingly long name refers to electricity, a key input in the process, and archaea, a large group of single-cell microorganisms which include the strain the company uses to convert carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methane.

Companies working on this energy frontier formed an organization, Store&Go, to support the testing necessary to sell the idea of “green gas.”

The group’s website acknowledges that in terms of the future of manufactured methane, the future price of natural gas will be “highly relevant.

“No significant changes in the natural gas price are expected until 2030 by states where there are still large crude oil and natural gas reserves that can be mined at low cost.”

But in 30 years a lot will change.

The reasons offered for why synthetic gas may be competitive in 2050 range from government payments for carbon reductions, regulations requiring synthetic gas be blended into natural gas, or rising natural gas prices as oil and gas production drops.

In the near term, Gunther Glenk, an assistant professor at the University of Mannheim who researches this area, said several trends favor a shift to making gas, such as

  • The continuously falling cost of renewables,
  • Lower-cost energy conversion methods such as electrolysis and storage technologies.
  • Growing electric market volatility, offering “vast periods of cheap electricity.”

These trends may provide opportunities for lowering the cost of making fuel in a world looking for low-carbon alternatives.

One point of agreement among the gas makers and drillers: the world will still require large amounts of energy that is not in the form of electrons. While there are multiple low-carbon ways to generate electricity, Store&Go notes that energy in the form of molecules is “lagging behind” on carbon reduction.

“This lack of green molecules is a serious shortcoming of the energy transition, since currently, energy molecules (gas/oil/coal) cover over 70% of the EU energy system,” it said.

Profitably manufacturing synthetic gas will require some original thinking. Papers offer ideas for manufacturing gas or hydrogen (which faces a similar cost barrier) and the use of these molecules to store energy over time. This would make it possible to generate profits in energy markets where the dominance of wind and solar power leads to more price volatility.

For example, the test facility at Solothurn, Switzerland, used excess electricity to create hydrogen from water using electrolysis and to capture carbon dioxide, which were combined in a bioreactor to create 13,800 m3 of pipeline-quality gas over 1,200 hours of operation, which was stored for sale when the price is right.

Studies by European economists indicate that by juggling the production and sales based on the lowest price inputs and highest value outputs, it appears possible to manufacture synthetic gas profits.

“The results show that power-to-gas is an option for long-term, large-scale seasonal storage of renewable energy,” particularly when electric prices are low and the run rate for making methane is high enough for efficient production, said Jachin Gorre, the lead author of one of the studies and founder and managing director of Grinix Energy Solutions.

For now, a world where methane is made, not mined, is the stuff of science fiction. It is a costly emerging technology, but drilling deep holes often completed with massive fracturing, sometimes in water a mile deep or more, is not cheap either.

Either way, Baker Hughes is working to make sure it has something to sell.

Production Costs for Synthetic Methane in 2030 and 2050 of an Optimized Power-To-Gas Plant With Intermediate Hydrogen Storage by J Gorre, Grinix Energy Solutions; F. Ortloff, DVGW Research Centre at Engler-Bunte-Institute; Charlotte van Leeuwen, University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

Video: Energy Conversion and Storage: Role of Reversible Power-to-Gas by G. Glenk, University of Mannheim, Germany.