New research detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes a recent development in the process of methane conversion. The researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago say that their method can convert methane in natural gas into liquid methanol at room temperature, a feat which had previously not been accomplished.
"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," explained corresponding author Meenesh Singh, who is an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the UIC College of Engineering.
The interest in methane comes from the idea that methanol, a fuel that burns more cleanly than natural gas (which emits CO2) and can also produce plastics and gasoline, could be the fuel of the future that takes the place of fossil fuels. Methanol is an attractive fuel because it produces lower emissions and has a higher volumetric energy density.
"Besides being a cleaner-burning fuel, methane can also be stored safely in regular containers, unlike natural gas, which has to be stored under pressure and which is much more expensive," Singh said. Nevertheless, methanol production is limited by the high levels of heat and pressure needed for the conversion process from natural gas. Thus, reducing the energy needed for this process is key to achieving the next step in making a methanol economy a reality.
To do this, Singh and UIC graduate student Aditya Prajapati employed a titanium and copper catalyst that aids in breaking the hydrocarbon bonds in methane gas. "We have been able to reduce the temperature of the industrial process from more than 200 degrees Celsius to room temperature, which is around 20 degrees Celsius," Prajapati said.
Another benefit of the technology is that it is versatile. "Our process doesn't need to be centralized," adds Singh. "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."