There are several advantages of using methanol as an alternative fuel. It is clean, it can be produced at low costs, it is safer and has a lower risk of flammability in comparison to gasoline, and it can be produced from different sources, which makes it abundant. Methanol can be produced from natural gas, coal, biomass, landfill gas and power plant or industrial emissions. It one of the proposed solutions to fight climate change. And most importantly, it can be stored as a liquid and transported across the globe. Plus, it is less toxic and has higher energy density than petroleum-based fuels.
One of the current methods of producing methanol involves breaking down natural gas (which consists mainly of methane) at high temperatures into hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide before reassembling them. This process, which is called “steam reforming”, is expensive and energy-intensive.
A new process
Now, Researchers at Cardiff Catalysis Institute (Cardiff University) have developed a new process to produce methanol with the help of yet another abundant source: air. They used oxygen from the air as a catalyst to convert methane into methanol at low temperatures and in the presence of hydrogen peroxide. Their findings were published in the journal Science.
Abstract: The selective oxidation of methane, the primary component of natural gas, remains an important challenge in catalysis. Using colloidal gold-palladium nanoparticles rather than the same nanoparticles supported on titanium oxide, we oxidized methane to methanol with high selectivity (92%) in aqueous solution at mild temperatures. Using isotopically labeled O2 as an oxidant in the presence of H2O2, we demonstrate that the methanol produced incorporated a substantial fraction (70%) of gas-phase O2. More oxygenated products were formed than H2O2 consumed, suggesting that the controlled breakdown of H2O2 activates methane which subsequently incorporates molecular oxygen through a radical process. If a source of methyl radicals can be established, then the selective oxidation of methane to methanol using molecular oxygen is possible.
Professor Graham Hutchings, Director of Cardiff Catalysis Institute, said: “The quest to find a more efficient way of producing methanol is a hundred years old. Our process uses oxygen – effectively a ‘free’ product in the air around us – and combines it with hydrogen peroxide at mild temperatures which require less energy. At present global natural gas production is ca. 2.4 billion tons per annum and 4% of this is flared into the atmosphere – roughly 100 million tons. Our new approach to using natural gas could use this “waste” gas saving CO2 emissions.”
A clean burning fuel
Dr. Robert Zubrin, who is working with NASA to find an efficient fuel for future space missions, believes that methanol could be one of our best choices for this purpose. In this video he demonstrates the difference between methanol and gasoline in terms of pollution by burning them side by side.