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New catalyst could make it easier to tap world’s methane

Methane FlareWhile the world has 60 years’ worth of recoverable natural gas resources, it doesn’t tap that energy source as much as it could, largely because methane requires either costly pipelines to transport as a gas or uneconomical processing to convert it to a more easily transported liquid fuel.

Researchers in Germany, though, believe they might have might have found a more affordable and efficient way to convert gaseous methane into liquid methanol.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces have developed a catalyst — a synthesised nitrogenous material — that converts methane to methanol in a simple and efficient process.

“This solid is so porous that the surface of a gram is approximately equivalent in size to a fifth of a football field,” said researcher Markus Antonietti.

After inserting platinum atoms into the lattice of the material, scientists can use the catalyst to efficiently oxidise methane into methanol. The catalyst offers methane a large area in which to react when chemists immerse it in oxidising sulphuric acid, force methane into the acid and heat the mixture to 215° Celsius under pressure. Methanol is created from more than three-quarters of the converted gas.

While a US chemist developed a similar catalyst more than 10 years ago, that material only supports the reaction in a soluble form. That means the catalyst and methanol must be separated in a laborious and wasteful process.

It’s much easier with our heterogeneous catalyst,” said researcher Ferdi Schüth. The new material enables chemists to filter out the powdery platinum and catalyst, then separate the acid and methanol in a simple distillation.

To get closer to a large-scale technical application, Schüth and his colleagues are now attempting to enable the process to work with reactants in gaseous rather than soluble form.

“We are also looking for similar, even more effective catalysts,” Schüth said.

Currently, the amount of methane burned off throughout the world could more than satisfy Germany’s requirement for natural gas.

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