Wasteful methane burn-offs could be turned into liquid fuel with molecular 'vice'

The global oil industry wastefully burns more natural gas than an entire continent.
Chris Young
Offshore construction platform for production oil and gas. curraheeshutter/iStock

A new methane binding agent could prevent massive amounts of natural gas being wastefully burned every year.

The global oil industry burns roughly the same amount of natural gas that is used by Central and South America every year.

A report from New Atlas reveals that the new binding agent could help to convert much of that gas into liquid fuels economically.

The oil industry's methane problem

Oil production is currently responsible for roughly 40 percent of methane emissions for the oil and gas industries. Up to now, oil companies have not had an economically viable option for capturing the methane that escapes during oil drilling. So they burn the gas instead, releasing it into the atmosphere, where it has a global warming potential of 84 to 87 times that of carbon dioxide. This results in approximately 265 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales believe they made an important breakthrough in the form of a more efficient and cheaper catalytic transformation method.

The UNSW researchers used computer modeling to help pinpoint the metal osmium, the highest-density element found in nature, as an ideal target for binding methane. "We have found that methane, which is generally inert, will interact with an osmium-metal-centered species to form a relatively stable osmium-methane complex," explained James Watson, lead author of a new study. "Our complex has an effective half-life of around 13 hours."

"This means that it takes 13 hours for half of the complex to decompose," he continued. "This stability, in conjunction with the relatively long lifetime of this complex, allows for in-depth analysis of the structure, formation and reactivity of this class of [osmium] complexes and helps to inform the design of catalysts that have the potential to transform methane into more synthetically useful compounds."

Helping the transition away from fossil fuels

The osmium complexes allow the scientists to perform in-depth molecular analyses that should lead to new catalytic processes that use more available elements — as osmium is one of Earth's rarest elements.

"One way of converting methane to liquid fuels is through the use of catalysts that contain transition metal elements,” said study co-author Associate Professor Graham Ball. "Not only [are liquid fuels] far more convenient and far safer than storing gases, but also [come in] at a much lower energy cost."

“Liquid fuels are easier to transport," they continued, "and would be easily integrated into our existing fuel infrastructure — E10 petrol already has 10 percent ethanol. If there were efficient, commercially viable methods to convert methane to methanol, for example, this would also provide an incentive to retain methane for conversion and to avoid burning it without purpose, reducing overall fossil fuel use and damaging emissions. We hope that our discovery will inform the design of next-generation, more efficient catalysts that can be commercially viable."

Hydrocarbon fuels do, of course, release carbon dioxide emissions, meaning this solution wouldn't be environmentally friendly. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently argued the global energy system is "broken" and that much more drastic action is needed. In that context, this may not be enough.

Still, the new method could prevent the extraction of other fuels meaning it would serve to lessen the problem slightly. It would also prevent massive amounts of natural gas from going to waste. Then, there is the possibility that the methane-derived liquid fuel could also be mixed with biofuel. Taken together, it could form an important step in the transition from fossil fuel consumption.

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