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An international team of researchers, led by scientists at the University of Manchester, has developed a fast and economical method of converting methane, or natural gas, into liquid methanol at room temperature and pressure. Methane is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, being about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

According to the UN, methane is also “the primary contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone, a hazardous air pollutant and greenhouse gas, exposure to which causes one million premature deaths every year.”

In order to prevent this gas from escaping into the atmosphere due to industrial processes, excess ethane is often burned off.

However, this process creates CO2, which also contributes to rising global temperatures, which is why industries have long searched for an efficient way to convert methane into methanol, which is an alternative biofuel.

Methanol is used in particular for internal combustion engines for racing cars, along with a variety of consumer and industrial products like synthetic fabrics and fibres; adhesives, paint, pharmaceuticals and agrichemicals.

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However, the process of converting methane into methanol has so far been costly and energy-intensive, requiring high temperatures and pressures.

In the new study, researchers created a new technique that uses a metal-organic framework (MOF) as a catalyst, speeding up the process significantly.

Sihai Yang, a professor of chemistry at Manchester and corresponding author said: “To greatly simplify the process, when methane gas is exposed to the functional MOF material containing mono-iron-hydroxyl sites, the activated oxygen molecules and energy from the light promote the activation of the C-H bond in methane to form methanol.

“The process is 100 percent selective—meaning there is no undesirable by-product—comparable with methane monooxygenase, which is the enzyme in nature for this process.”

The experiments demonstrated that the solid catalyst can be isolated, washed, dried and reused for at least 10 cycles, or approximately 200 hours of reaction time, without any loss of performance.

The researchers believe that by eliminating the need for high temperatures or pressures, and using the energy from sunlight to drive the photo-oxidation process, the new conversion method could substantially lower equipment and operating costs.

The higher speed of the process and its ability to convert methane to methanol with no undesirable byproducts will facilitate the development of in-line processing that minimizes costs.

Martin Schröder, vice president and dean of faculty of science and engineering at Manchester and corresponding author said: “This process has been termed the ‘holy grail of catalysis.’

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“Instead of burning methane, it may now be possible to convert the gas directly to methanol, a high-value chemical that can be used to produce biofuels, solvents, pesticides and fuel additives for vehicles.

“This new MOF material may also be capable of facilitating other types of chemical reactions by serving as a sort of test tube in which we can combine different substances to see how they react.”

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