(The Gist of Science Reporter) Delving a little deeper   [APRIL-2018]


(The Gist of Science Reporter) Delving a little deeper

  [APRIL-2018]


Delving a little deeper

It is elementary, dear reader, that hydrogen (H) is the most abundant element in the universe. Our largest and the oldest energy source, the sun, is filled with it. Should we, the humble Earth dwellers, not follow suit and use hydrogen for our energy needs? Hydrogen gas is the simplest and the lightest of the molecules. When hydrogen gas is oxidized, it produces significant amounts of energy and little amount of water- two of the most precious products we need. And perhaps most importantly no carbon dioxide is emitted during the oxidation of hydrogen gas. It is hardly surprising then that hydrogen gas is aptly labelled as an ideal fuel that can safeguard our future.

Hydrogen gas is generally produced from petrochemical sources and hence is not environmentally friendly. However, researches from all over the world have been working on developing technologies to produce hydrogen gas from biological waste materials.

However, having only hydrogen gas as an output may not make this technology economically feasible. But, as mentioned earlier, there are co-products too -organic acids which will fetch a good price in the marketplace. These acids can be used in another process to produce very valuable polymers that can substitute petroleum-based plastics. Many micro-organisms are known to store energy whenever they see that they have access to surplus food organic matter in other words. The food storage is in the form of organic polymers, which the micro-organisms can later break down and derive energy from.
‘Polyhydroxyalkanoates’ (PHAs) comprise one group of such organic polymers. These microbes find it easier to feed on organic acids, than wood-derived sugars to produce PHAs. The process producing hydrogen gas and bioplastics is purely biological and occurs at easily sustainable ambient conditions (temperature, pH, etc.). A two-step process like the one described can be very easily coupled to existing pulp and paper mills; and not only will it enable the treatment of the wastewater streams there from but also yield valuable outputs in the process environment-friendly ones at that !

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