Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have discovered a way to convert methane in natural gas into liquid methanol at room temperature.
This discovery, I reported in the magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, It can provide a cleaner energy source for many of our daily activities.
When combusted, natural gas – the fuel used to heat homes, cook and generate electricity – produces carbon dioxide, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States consumed nearly 31 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2019, contributing about 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The best way to use natural gas is to convert it into methanol, a liquid fuel that burns more cleanly and can be used to produce gasoline and plastics. But converting the methane in natural gas to methanol requires a lot of heat and pressure and generates a large amount of the carbon dioxide itself.
“Researchers have been interested in ways to convert methane to methanol at ambient temperatures to avoid the heat and pressure currently required in industrial processes to make this conversion,” said Minish Singh, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UIC’s College of Engineering. And the corresponding author of the paper.
Methanol is also believed to be the “fuel of the future,” as it drives the “methanol economy” as it replaces fossil fuels in transportation and energy storage and as the dominant feedstock for synthetic chemicals and other products. Methanol is currently used in the fuel cell technology that powers some city buses and other vehicles. Singh said its low emission potential and high volumetric energy density make it an attractive alternative to fossil fuels.
“Besides being a cleaner combustion fuel, methane can also be stored safely in regular containers, unlike natural gas, which must be stored under pressure and is much more expensive,” Singh said.
Large amounts of heat and pressure are required to break the hydrocarbon bonds in methane, which is the first step in methanol production. But Singh and graduate student Aditya Prajapati at the University of Kentucky have identified a catalyst that helps lower the energy needed to break these bonds so that the reaction can take place at room temperature.
“We were able to reduce the temperature of the industrial process from over 200 degrees Celsius to room temperature, which is around 20 degrees Celsius,” Prajapati said.
Their catalyst is made of titanium and copper. The catalyst, with a small amount of electricity, facilitates the breakdown of methane hydrocarbon bonds and the formation of methanol. The process consumes much less energy than traditional methods, and because it does not require machines to produce high pressure and heat, it can be set up quickly and inexpensively.
“Our process doesn’t need to be centralized,” Singh said. “It can be implemented in a small space such as a truck and a truck for the distributed use of natural gas and methanol manufacturing.”
Singh and colleagues filed a temporary patent for this process and expect it can transform a few liters of methanol per day. The patent is administered by the UIC Office of Technology Management.
Brianna Collins and Jason Goodbuster of the University of Minnesota are co-authors on the paper.