Methanol has wide-ranging potential as a cleaner fuel for powering advanced automobiles or producing plastic materials or other chemicals, and recently we’re seeing how the production side of things could prove a boon for the environment, too. Scientists at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) have now found a catalyst that allows the methane in natural gas to be converted into methanol in a far less energy-intensive way than current solutions.
While natural gas produces around 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when it is burned, it is still a notable contributor to climate change, pumping around 1.6 gigatons of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere from the US in 2019, according to the UIC team. Methane serves as the primary component in natural gas, and by converting it into clean-burning methanol scientists see a greener way forward for this resource, though this involves high heat and pressure in a process that itself generates substantial carbon emissions.
“Researchers have been interested in ways to convert methane to methanol at ambient temperatures to sidestep all the heat and pressure that is currently required in industrial processes to perform this conversion,” says Meenesh Singh, author of the new research.
The reason that such intense heat and pressure is needed for this process is because the hydrocarbon bonds within the methane need to first be broken. The UIC team has now identified a new catalyst made from titanium and copper that enables this to take place at room temperature instead, needing only a small amount of electricity to kick off the chemical reaction.
“We have been able to reduce the temperature of the industrial process from more than 200 °C (392 °F) to room temperature, which is around 20 °C (68 °F),” says study author Aditya Prajapati.
Because this new technique doesn’t require complex, industrial-scale machinery to produce the high heat and pressure, the researchers say the system can be set up easily and cheaply. They’ve filed a patent for the technology, and believe that a small, portable system could produce several liters of methanol a day.
“Our process doesn’t need to be centralized,” Singh says. “It can be implemented in a space as small as a van and is portable for distributed utilization of natural gas and manufacturing of methanol.”
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Source: University of Illinois Chicago