Year/Course: 2014-2015, Easter 2015

Contact: Dr. Erwin Reisner, Department of Chemistry
Mentor: Lara Allen, Centre for Global Equality

In poor rural regions in developing countries energy costs are significantly higher than in developed countries. Energy is harder to obtain, and in off grid areas as much as a third of household income may be spent on fuel costs for cooking, lighting, heating, transport and communications. Kerosene is a common source of lighting, which carries high risks of burns and general fire damage. Cooking fuel may be kerosene, wood, charcol or dung. Off grid electricity is relatively expensive and used largely for limited lighting and charging mobile phones. This tends to be generated through PV panels and stored in car batteries.
Low-cost PV solar panels are making a difference, being used for lighting and to charge the car batteries. However, this still does not address the need for fuels for transport, cooking cooking and in some places, heating.
The Reisner group in the Department of Chemistry has a long-term goal of producing useful fuels directly from sunlight, allowing off-grid access to personalised energy in forms other than electricity. By studying the details of photosynthesis, they are working on similar processes, which will ultimately be able to produce a wide range of liquid fuels and other chemicals, depending on the circumstances. Currently they can produce hydrogen gas, but are aiming to produce liquid fuels in the future since these are so widely used.

Although the new technology may not be ready for market for another ten years, the researchers want to develop an understanding of the market needs and requirements in parallel with developing the scientific techniques. They are considering an early project to test the market concept, by using solar panels to generate hydrogen as a fuel, or possibly hydrogen mixed with bio-gas (which is increasingly being produced in rural areas).

The question for the i-Team is to look at the fuel needs of the rural poor in developing countries, and help the researchers formulate a roadmap for their technology to serve this constituency. What is the best scale of fuel generation, for example household, street, or larger? What are the comparative energy costs for the rural poor, and would a burnable gas fuel such as hydrogen be useful as compared with electricity from solar panels? What are the comparative advantages and disadvantages of Hydrogen gas compared with biogas? What would an early test project look like and where should it take place? The answers to these questions will help the researchers develop their technology in the most appropriate directions.