Researchers making methane more marketable

provided by Michigan Technological University


esearchers at Michigan Tech are hoping a new process they developed for creating liquid methanol from methane will open the door for greater commercial use of the plentiful gas.

"Natural gas warms our homes, heats our water, and cooks our food," said Dr. David Hand of Michigan Tech's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "Its emissions are about as nontoxic as human breath: carbon dioxide and water vapor are its primary byproducts. Plus, there are huge amounts of natural gas worldwide, the equivalent of 500 billion barrels of oil."

Yet much of this useful, clean, and versatile fuel is burned off as a nuisance, according to Hand. Because natural gas, also known as methane, really is a gas, not a liquid, and getting it from the production site to the consumer isn't easy. And while natural-gas powered vehicles are touted as virtually pollution-free, refueling is such a hassle that they're usually found only in fleets where "greenness" is a top priority.

Methane is often located in the same underground places as oil, and unless large reserves are found, it's treated as an unwanted byproduct. "Usually, it's flamed off," said Hand. "The petroleum industry burns it because it's too expensive to transport you can see the flames in the oil fields. But if we could make it into a product that was affordable to transport, it could be commercially viable."

The synthetic fuel methanol is just such a portable product, since it's liquid at room temperature. However, the existing methods for creating liquid methanol from methane are either expensive or untried, blocking their commercial development.

Hand hopes a new sun-driven process he developed in collaboration with environmental engineering colleague Dr. John Crittenden will be more successful. "We envision using solar energy to drive the reaction," Hand said. They have found a reaction pathway that creates methanol from methane gas using near-UV light and a titanium-based catalyst. Funded by a $227,000 grant from the National Center for Clean Industrial Treatment Technologies, their next step is to generate enough methanol to make the process commercially viable.

Their preliminary results are promising, and the University has filed for provisional patent protection. If they succeed, the world could have another source of energy. And the methane that's now an annoyance to oil producers could instead be transformed into a clean, affordable fuel for the world's gas tanks.

  For more information, contact David Hand at 906-487-2777; email: