Like carbon dioxide, methane can either collect in the planet’s atmosphere as a greenhouse gas or it can be captured and utilized. Unlike carbon dioxide, methane is an easily usable fuel. Unfortunately, it also has to be captured at its source — and the sources are many. As such, methane emissions present a unique challenge that energy tech manufacturer Qnergy seeks to solve through its small-scale generators and compressed air pneumatics that are both designed to harness the gas in its raw form at the point of origin. This presents a unique opportunity to decrease the levels of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere and access a renewable source of fuel simultaneously.
Methane constitutes approximately 20 percent of man-made greenhouse gasses, making it the second most common of those gasses after carbon dioxide (CO2). However, methane is much more efficient at trapping heat than CO2, and it also has a shorter lifespan — thereby remaining in the atmosphere for a mere 12 years versus the centuries it takes for CO2 to break down. This means that even if the planet’s population managed to drastically cut CO2 emissions now, the effects will not be felt for a very long time. Whereas with methane, “Achieving significant reductions would have a rapid and significant effect on atmospheric warming potential,” according to the EPA.
Every biological process that produces waste also produces methane. Humans contribute excess amounts of the gas through our food production systems, landfills, as well as wastewater and energy systems — even our home kitchens add up when it comes to total methane emissions. Collecting and refining methane produced from such widely distributed sources presents a significant challenge to harnessing these emissions as fuel, one that Qnergy aims to address through its generators. Designed as external combustion engines, these generators do not require refined methane and can operate on the raw gas as it is vented — producing electrical energy that can be used at the source. This technology prevents any methane that would otherwise be wasted through flaming or released into the atmosphere from adding to climate change and instead, closes the loop with local energy production.
Qnergy presents two examples of this closed-loop energy production in a recent white paper. The first is its work with TotalEnergies, the massive France-based oil and gas company that reduced its methane emissions by 98 percent after implementing Qnergy’s proprietary systems. The second example is in partnership with Sistema.bio, a manufacturer of anaerobic biodigesters. Together, the two companies helped a pig farm in Mexico transition from heavy fines for pollution to significantly reduced emissions which eliminated government penalties. In addition, the farm went on to generate 120 kWh of renewable power per day while transforming manure into fertilizer, reducing operating costs all around.
Qnergy stresses that the method of capture and conversion must fit the source. The company’s examples of larger-scale producers offer a realistic start toward harnessing distributed methane. As the planet’s population grows, reclaiming the fuel from smaller, cumulative sources will likely be necessary. What this will look like remains to be seen but it may help to think about methane capture and small-scale generators in a similar vein as solar panels. Could buildings and homes be built with micro-sized generators that would capture methane produced in our kitchens and toilets and allow it to be used on the same premises? At what rate of return will consumers be convinced to add such systems to their homes? Can governments offer similar tax incentives to homeowners and businesses that install such micro-generators as to those who installed solar panels on their roofs?
Methane’s immense ability to trap heat makes its abatement and capture imperative to climate change mitigation. By moving away from any centralized thinking that ignores many sources of methane as fuel due to the nature of its wide distribution, it is possible to harness that energy and put it to use. In order to do so, cooperation will be needed between the private sector, government and consumers.
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Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.