Scientists Uncover Unexpected Uses for Harmful Greenhouse Gases

Though harmful greenhouse gases are charged with driving unprecedented — and dangerous — climate change, they’re proving to be an unlikely ally to researchers working on solutions to treat African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) and reduce the variability of renewable power.

Caused by exposure to the tsetse fly, African trypanosomiasis is an infectious and potentially fatal disease prominent in rural regions of sub-Saharan Africa. The drug eflornithine is typically used to treat patients in the second stage of the illness, and researchers at the University of Graz in Austria have now uncovered an unexpected way to produce it using fluoroform — a waste product derived from the manufacture of fluoropolymers such as Teflon — and a 3D-printed steel reactor system.

The process, which is described in full in the scientific journal Green Chemistry, involves pumping fluoroform through microliter-scale chambers within the steel reactor, where it is exposed to a range of “quench” solutions and consequently transformed into eflornithine.

“Flow chemistry saves time and money compared to traditional processes and is often more environmentally friendly because there are no waste products between the individual reaction steps,” said Dr. C. Oliver Kappe, a professor at the University of Graz.

The technology’s contribution to the medical field is noteworthy, but it also has important implications for addressing climate change. The disposal of fluroroform traditionally involves incineration, which ultimately releases CO2. The procedure proposed by the University of Graz can prevent the release of emissions into the atmosphere and direct them towards a more productive use.

The 3D printed flow reactor, which measures a mere 16 x 9 x 3 cm, was designed by the University of Graz in partnership with Graz University of Technology and the Research Center Pharmaceutical Engineering GmbH, and manufactured by Anton Paar, a specialist in selective laser melting technologies.

Meanwhile, renewable energy is about to become a whole lot more reliable thanks to a new breakthrough technology developed by researchers at the University of Chicago. The groundbreaking process converts electricity via a strain of methanogenic Archaea into methane, which can then be used for power generation.

Surplus power produced by solar arrays or wind farms drives the process, converting water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter of which is combined with waste CO2 from industrial processes in a bioreactor where the methanogenic Archaea convert it into methane and water. The resulting methane can be stored, transported through existing pipeline networks or compressed into natural gas or liquid natural gas to be used to produce electricity. According to Laurens Mets, an associate professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago, the technology boasts a carrying capacity greater than that of batteries and other existing bulk-energy storage systems.

The technology has now been licensed to startup Electrochaea. Last June, the company opened a large-scale demonstration facility — BioCat — at a wastewater treatment plant outside Copenhagen, Denmark. The success of the project has prompted the development of a 10-megawatt commercial-scale power-to-gas plant in Hungary. Electrochaea also plans to open another plant in Switzerland with up to 1,000 MW of capacity.


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