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The Challenge: Methane to Methanol (MTM)


methane to liquids

gas_flares.jpgFor decades natural gas has been a resource for energy production as well as a raw material for the chemical industry. According to a report by US Energy Administration, approximately 25% of the United States' energy production was derived from natural gas in 2010. The majority of energy production from natural gas involves combustion, and the use of methane as a raw material for the chemical industry generally requires conversion to a mixture of carbon monoxide and dihydrogen (synthesis gas or syngas), which is a high temperature (800 °C) and pressure (35 bar) process. The development of selective low temperature (≤ 250 °C) methods for the conversion of methane could provide the foundation for more efficient utilization of natural gas for electricity generation and scaled use of natural gas in transportation. These developments could decrease dependence on foreign petroleum, while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The production and use of domestic natural gas are both limited, in part, by the physical requirements to compress it. Liquefaction of natural gas is energy intensive and relatively expensive, and there are potential safety issues. These factors limit natural gas use in the transportation sector. Moving natural gas (as a liquid or as a gas in a pipeline) from remote locations is difficult and expensive. As a result, in part, of the difficulty in moving natural gas, substantial amounts of natural gas are flared or vented. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that global flaring accounts for up to 160 billion cubic meters of natural gas, which is approximately ¼ of the annual U.S. natural gas consumption. In addition, the expense of constructing pipelines to transport natural gas from remote sites can be prohibitive. For example, plans to construct natural gas pipelines to Alaska's north slope were estimated to cost up $35 billion, a price tag that resulted in cancellation of the project in 2011. Clearly, new catalyst technologies for the conversion, under moderate temperature and pressure, of natural gas to a liquid could dramatically alter the extent and efficiency of natural gas utilization.

Methanol_bus_china.jpgThe CCHF seeks to develop direct (i.e., non-Fischer-Tropsch) routes for the conversion of methane to liquid fuel with a predominant focus on the methane-to-methanol conversion. Methanol is a versatile molecule that can be: 1) easily transported with existing infrastructure, 2) directly used in flex fuel vehicles, 3) blended with gasoline, 4) converted to gasoline or dimethylether, which is a component of diesel fuel, and 5) converted to ethylene and propylene, which are precursors to a wide range of chemicals.

Given the versatility of methanol and the abundance of domestic natural gas, the low-temperature catalytic processes for methane functionalizaton being developed by the CCHF could significantly reduce dependence on imported oil to meet the nation's increasing energy and industrial needs, as well as provide a cleaner source of energy. Methanol could replace petroleum as a liquid fuel for transportation applications and as a feedstock for industrial production of a wide range of chemicals and polymeric materials. Methane could be used directly in high efficiency, low-temperature fuel cells to generate electricity, opening the possibility for direct use of methane in the transportation sector.