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Published on October 22nd, 2017 | by Steve Hanley


New Way To Capture Methane At The Well Head Proposed

October 22nd, 2017 by  

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, yet one fifth of the methane produced in the United States each year goes straight into the atmosphere. Why? Because it is too expensive to capture it and turn it into fuel. Instead, fossil fuel companies burn it as it comes out of the ground in a process known as “flaring.”

methane flare via foterThe industry is currently pushing back vigorously against rules imposed by the Obama administration designed to limit the amount of methane allowed to escape into the atmosphere. Too expensive, the companies cry. Unfortunately, methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but when it comes to choosing between profits and destroying the earth’s atmosphere, the fossil fuel industry chooses profits every time.

Much of the wastage can be attributed to location. Special equipment is needed to cool and pressurize methane gas, and special pressurized containers or pipelines are needed to transport it. In many places, such as offshore oil platforms or remote oil fields far from the needed infrastructure, that’s just not economically viable.

Now, scientists at MIT say they have devised a cost-effective way to capture that wasted methane and turn it into fuel or chemical feed stocks. Instead of venting it into the air, the process could allow companies to turn that wasted gas into money. Fossil fuel companies are deaf to the plight of the earth, but they can hear a dollar bill crinkling at 40 paces.

MIT chemistry professor Yogesh Surendranath and three colleagues have found a way to convert methane into derivatives of methanol, a liquid that can be made into automotive fuel or used as a precursor to a variety of chemical products. This new method may allow for lower-cost methane conversion at remote sites. The findings, described in the journal ACS Central Science, could pave the way to making use of a significant methane supply that is otherwise totally wasted.

Today, the process to convert methane to a liquid requires lots of energy, very high operating temperatures and expensive equipment. The researchers say they have developed a low-temperature electro-chemical process that accomplishes the same result using a renewable catalyst. The electricity needed could come from solar or wind power. The total system would be “a relatively low cost, on-site addition to existing wellhead operations,” says Professor Surendranath.

“Since we’re using electricity to drive the process, this opens up new opportunities for making the process more rapid, selective, and portable than existing methods,” he says. “We can access catalysts that no one has observed before, because we’re generating them in a new way.” If the electricity comes from renewable sources, the process can be carried out at remote locations where access to the electrical grid is not available.

As with all laboratory research, there is more work to be done. The MIT process results in a two liquid chemicals —  methyl bisulfate and methanesulfonic acid. These, in turn, can be processed to make liquid methanol, which can than be further processed to create fuels, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

The additional processing steps needed to make methanol remain very challenging and must be perfected before this technology can be implemented on an industrial scale. The researchers are hard at work tackling the remaining technological hurdles.

Source: MIT via Science Daily  | Photo credit: Foter 
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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. His motto is, "Life is not measured by how many breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away!" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

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