Lake Kivu Methane. Can Ethanol double its Energy Yield?

Can we produce ethanol from Lake Kivu in addition to methane? If so, how? Methane is the primary energy form in the lake, which contains five times as much unusable CO2 in the reservoir. Some research news offers a challenge and an opportunity to do so much more.

A research team led by scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and Northern Illinois University has discovered a new electrocatalyst that can consistently convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol with very high energy efficiency and low cost.

Argonne’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science).

Hydragas Energy worked for a decade to prove the leading gas extraction method from Lake Kivu. It gets tens of billions worth of methane out cheaply and effectively. But what if the waste product is worth even more?

Ethanol Production Potential

Can we now achieve this with another innovation? The lake is already a hugely important case for carbon reduction through producing renewable natural gas (RNG). But we do return gigatons of carbon dioxide to the lake – a huge carbon sink. It is essentially a low-value waste product that continues to accumulate. The carbon dioxide is a by-product of the natural digestion process producing methane. It is removed during methane extraction to upgrade the product gas. We currently return it to the lake.

Panoramic photo of Mt Nyiragongo from Lake Kivu during wet season showing steam plume
Panoramic of Mt Nyiragongo from Lake Kivu in wet season

What if we could take the methane out but also convert the CO2 to ethanol? Could this be a cheap supplement to regional gasoline supply, in the form of a carbon-negative fuel? If so, we can do this by using a newly developed catalyst from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School. In addition, all one needs is CO2, water and electrical power – all abundant from the lake. So what is the potential?

That is where the numbers would add up to a massive economic injection for the region. That is a big number where the Kivu methane potential is already $40 billion over 50 years. How would the economics look for ethanol? Can we produce even more value?

Cheaper fuel – Ethanol from Lake Kivu

Gasoline has a vast, still growing market internationally. Many markets promote the use of up to 15% ethanol blended in the gasoline. Subsidy is usually needed to make production economic as ethanol is mostly derived from corn (maize) or sugar cane. These substrates are expensive to produce – hence their subsidy needs. But where the CO2 substrate is available for this alternative production process at virtually at no cost, the fuel produced is much cheaper. One would expect that it reduces the cost of fuel and can also be sold competitively within the region for fuel blending.

The contribution to a circular regional economy for East Africa is a real contribution to reducing reliance on imports. It enhances the use of the lake for CCUS, or carbon capture, usage and storage. It is already a vast opportunity, but further enhanced. 

“The process resulting from our catalyst would contribute to the circular carbon economy, which entails the reuse of carbon dioxide.” — Di-Jia Liu, senior chemist in Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering division and a UChicago CASE scientist

Advancing a Clean Economy in Africa

We are looking to build onto an established energy case for a cleaner regional economy. Methane from Lake Kivu can eliminate diesel fuel imports for power generation, while replacing charcoal as a domestic fuel. With power production potential of 600 MW, the produced power can supply power at half the region’s marginal cost of power. But the use of gasoline as the primary transport fuel in Rwanda, DRC and other regional users was a complex opportunity. Ethanol production is an important alternative to supplement imports at a lower cost.

It uses some of a vast store of accumulated CO2 gas in Lake Kivu. We currently need to wash this CO2 out of raw gas produced, to make 80% pure renewable natural gas (RNG) as pipeline natural gas.

But now instead of returning the washed out CO2 to the lake, we can process the wash water to make ethanol. If testing shows that the process is successful and economic, we can hugely enhance ethanol from Lake Kivu as part of a clean energy production phenomenon. Rwanda can, with the Kivu gas project, become 100% supplied with clean non-transport energy. With this added gasoline substitution it can commence the displacement of a significant percentage of transport fuel too.

Panoramic photo of Mt Nyiragongo from Lake Kivu during wet season showing steam plume Gas recovery

Hydragas Sway Presentation on Lake Kivu

Online Presentation of the Lake Kivu Project

Find out here more about Hydragas Energy, in this presentation format. For that, you can use this link to access the presentation in Sway, a little used Microsoft Presentation format.

Sway is in fact view-able on any web browser. So try viewing the Sway presentation here now. It will give a quick insight on Lake Kivu’s development. Similarly, it will illustrate the approach used by Hydragas Energy to carry out Lake Kivu development.

See the presentation link below:

Go to this Sway


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Re-inventing or changing careers in a job crisis

Mountain hiding in the clouds from the volcanoes
Mountain hiding in clouds rising from the volcano

Suddenly you’re changing careers

Changing careers is often forced on you suddenly; how you react to it will change the rest of your life – in many ways. This crisis happened for me over a year back. My recent gig ran its course. Moving on, what was it to be next? I’m revisiting an earlier post.

The oil and gas industry? No, it’s in shock or it’s captive to outside interests, with a “W” shaped price dip happening. But since 2008 the right hand half of this “W” looking more like a left-leaning “L” than a “V”. Not pretty, not promising and a long road to better days.

Ten year oil price trends comparing WCS to WTI
Ten year oil price trends comparing WCS to WTI

Oil companies and their service providers are still contemplating further job cuts four years on from 2015. Consolidation and exits from Canada’s oil sands. A locked-in hinterland with pipelines captive in a political process. As the net oil price received still flirts with the wrong side of $40, so much of the oil sands production is still out of the money. The industry’s service companies have at least matched that decline, with staff cuts topping 50% in some cases, as the projects dried up. Thousands of Calgary employees found themselves changing careers. What chance of my changing careers back into that industry?

I’ll take the answer as slim. Maybe slim with green shoots. A couple of long positions on LNG and inland ethylene crackers to feed off low-priced stranded gas and condensates perhaps. Kudos to LNG Canada for making a counter-cyclic FID in Kitimat.

Changing careers & mining’s volatility

Industry staffing is always in flux. Global oil industry job changes at top management and executive levels back in in 2013/14 showed about 19,000 people changing career in a total of 25,000 jobs held. Five years on it’s now perhaps less volatile, just uninspired. Total jobs are still way down and the volatile part leads through the exit door. A lot of competition for fewer job openings, a lot of candidates for job transitioning too.

What of going back to the mining industry then? Gold prices are at five year highs, but driven by short-term political scares. It’s probably one industry along with transport that should be benefiting heavily from the lower oil price, but mine projects are slow too. Even developers with ready-to-build project opportunities are mindful that the oil price, and thus mining costs, will not stay low. Oil needs to stay low for the project build and first years of operation. Still too risky. Most miners will run down debt levels instead, playing it safe, planning rather than doing. Not so many jobs there.

The Newmont-Goldcorp deal will create the worlds largest gold producer

The new game in town in gold is consolidation, M&As between the majors to put a superficial gloss on something that’s slowly dying on the inside. Cutting costs is one thing, but cutting capability has a deeper, longer impact. For an industry not investing nor succeeding in exploration, not investing in megaprojects because they mostly failed badly in the last boom, the illusion of growth from mergers is the only game. In essence the industry doesn’t believe in its own future and the final bet is on gold prices rising.

If not mining, then what?

We probably all know this. The question is, what is each of us to do? How to seize the dark day and turn it into something special, brilliant even? I know what I must do. But it’s going to take a special effort, a lot of connections and some good fortune. I’m working on a plan, I have been for years. Now I have had the kick in the butt that says “Do it!” Will fortune favour the brave? Will I be brave enough to see out a lean year or two?

The Attraction of Volcanoes

Night fishing boats on Lake Kivu, that use bright lights and suspended nets to fish for sardine-like sambaza
Night fishing boats on Lake Kivu, fish for sardine-like sambaza

The header photo is not there because it’s pretty, a lake, a volcano on a sunny day in Africa. It’s because that lake contains a hidden lure worth tens of billions. And because, paradoxically, that same treasure threatens the lives of the millions that live around it.  These are poor people scratching hard for a living in the slopes around the lake. Fishermen too, are going for the shallow water sambaza. But many are refugees, still camped in Goma after a generation of conflict in Eastern Congo.

Four million people live in the valley, too many desperate. Changing career only happens if you had one to start with. It could be a mining and energy hub, but not much of this business is going on as investors remain wary. It’s a territory with a tough history and difficult circumstances to the west, in DRC. Rwanda to the east has experienced a huge turnaround since 2006, now one of the top growth prospects in Africa.

Sudden disaster is lurking

Now imagine that suddenly a volcano of gas, water and mud erupts from this lake’s 1600 foot depths. Could you visualise rapidly radiating tsunami waves with 25km to the shores. They would move fast, probably obscured by a cloud of rising, asphyxiating gas filling the valley to the height of the CN Tower in Toronto? The eruption has enough gas to run for a day or more. Nothing can live in that cloud as it’s toxic. It will happen in the next 70 years, but it could even be triggered sooner.

Sooner can happen because this is one of the most active seismic and volcanic hot spots on the planet. It’s the valley where Africa is rifting and where two active volcanoes formed the lake by damming its outlet. A planetary hot spot. The potential triggers are there. The environmental threat of releasing 2-3 gigatons of carbon to atmosphere inside a day is real and serious, but it’s not on the same page. The total threat potential is unprecedented, possibly the worst natural disaster in human times.

Understanding risk & seeking the reward

Threat and opportunity. Risk and reward. We talk of these in business school as if it’s a numbers only game, measured in cash. Here the trade-off is in lives and dollars, millions and billions respectively. A different sort of decision making, more like war than business. Unlike some wars, we cannot talk our way out of this one out by negotiating with nature. We, that know how, have to act and soon. Counter the threat responsibly; take the dangerous methane out of the lake. It’s way better than the consequences of doing nothing, disaster is then certain.

Roadsigns showing risk and reward
Road signs showing risk and reward

The benefit is a cheaper supply natural gas and power, plenty of it, to the two countries. They need it. The good news is that we do know what to do and how, or at least a few of us do. Working with the worlds foremost experts for 12 years means that we can understand the threat, we know how to reduce the danger levels – slowly, but certainly. We know which methods of extraction increase the threat level and those which do not. We’ve debated and published the rules on how to do it safely – and these are important to observe, diligently.

We also know how to create a great project out of this need, by supplying clean energy to tens of millions of people at half of today’s costs and for the next fifty years at least. The threat level can be diminished by an order of magnitude in ten years and by two or three orders in fifty years. There are also massive economic benefits to follow people safety and environmental protection.

Innovation leads the way

The difficult hurdles to making this real are mostly out of the way. Innovating, developing and testing the best technology to extract methane; designing the high efficiency gas extraction plant; achieving full compliance with the rules of using the lake. Those were hard to do. The final step is to pull in the finance. Then assemble the team to put together the first, of at least a dozen of these world class projects, into production. This is today’s challenge. The time has come but financing it is the tough bit.

We know that new technology advances, the inherent dangers and a location in the heart of Africa are not the comfortable terrain for most investors. Putting hundreds of millions of dollars to work there and earning exceptional returns may just be the domain for those with the right stuff.

In 2008 banks would have us believe that junk sub-prime housing bonds were an investment. Madness. Ten years on investors compete for an over-hyped slice of a perennial loss-making ride-hailing service, with no assets. This type of clean energy project has less risk, real returns and real impact. Its competitors are way behind technologically. It has an exceptional triple bottom line, akin to the “Save the World” variety. That’s the Impact Investor I want to talk to, individuals and family funds rather than big institutions.

I doubt that just changing careers out there could offer me any such rich rewards. This is off the charts of Mazlow’s “self-actualization” measure in job satisfaction. I need a piece of that and I don’t think I’ll find it in a corporate job profile.

So who’s in for the ride?