Turning useless Methane into useful Methanol

Methane is 20 times worse than C02 as a greenhouse gas, so when it’s created as a by-product at oil rigs it’s burned. This is better than releasing the methane into the atmosphere, but it’s not an ideal solution as it creates more C02. Jeroen Van Bokhoven and his team at ETH Zurich have found a new way to convert the methane into something cleaner, and a bit more useful…

Jeroen – We form it into methanol. Methanol itself is a resource for many chemicals, we can even convert this to fuels in the end. Methanol is a base chemical which has many different applications.

Tom – Is methane generally quite a reactive substance?

Jeroen – Methane is a rather unreactive substance. One of the difficulties to activate methane is the product that you make, the methanol, is more reactive than the methane itself. That’s why this reaction is so difficult to perform selectively, because the methanol will react further and then you will not end up with the useful product. That’s why this reaction is called the ‘dream reaction’ because it’s so difficult to perform and to achieve a high yield.

Tom – How do you do this? How do you convert methane into methanol?

Jeroen – Well we defined a stepwise process where we have a material which we activate and this activated material is then reacting with methane. Then we switch the conditions and then we have the activated methane reacting with water and this generates the methanol and at the same time it reactivates the material so it can react with another molecule of methane. The novelty is that we use the water and oxygen from the water molecule ends up in the methanol. The previous methods that have been used will always use an oxidant. The novelty here is that we use water, it simplifies the process very much.

Tom – Before your discovery, how do we currently convert methane into methanol?

Jeroen – Currently that is a very involved process. There are two largescale processes involved. One is the steam reforming of methane making ‘sin gas’ that is carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This is high temperature, high pressure process and then in the second step this mixture is reacted over a novel catalyst to methanol. This is only commercially viable if it’s done at largescale. And that’s why at smaller scales the methane is not viable to convert into methanol, so that’s why its burnt. Our process, we envision you can do it at much smaller scales and that it would be profitable to do it that way.

Tom – So is that the end goal here? To use your process at oil well sites where currently methane is just being burnt as flares and you’re saying no what we can do is, ideally, at these sits convert this to methanol and then do something useful with it?

Jeroen – Yes, that is correct. It’s to do something useful with what us now considered a waste product.

Tom – How far away are you from that? What would a setup to do your process look like at, for example, a well site?

Jeroen – At the moment, we are far from a commercial and an actual application. We have shown that the concept works on the very small scale and the next steps in the lab are to scale-up this process as well as to make sure that the rates of reactions – the speed that the reactions run – are sufficient for a largescale operation.

Tom – When you say, you’ve done this in the lab, how much of this methanol are you making? Is it really quite small amounts currently then?

Jeroen – At the moment it is really small amounts yes, but we also have not optimised this at all, so there are huge opportunities for optimisation. We have shown the proof of concept – that’s what the paper is about – and of course the next steps are to understand what the chemical mechanism is better than we do now, and as well as directly trying to scale this up. There are huge opportunities to do the scale up, but the research is not in the stage that we have looked at it. That is really the next thing to do.

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