UK scientists claim 'outstanding' results making methanol from thin air

Development could have significant implications for shipping, which uses methanol as fuel for vessels.

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Updated on 14 Sep 2017 08:48 GMT

Scientists in Wales claim to have created methanol from the air around us - from methane using oxygen - in a development that could have significant implications for the natural gas industry and other sectors, such as shipping, which uses methanol as fuel for vessels.

Methanol is currently produced by breaking down natural gas at high temperatures into hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide before reassembling them in expensive and energy-intensive processes known as 'steam reforming' and 'methanol synthesis'.

But researchers at Cardiff University's Catalysis Institute have discovered they can produce methanol from methane using simple catalysis that allows methanol production at low temperatures using oxygen and hydrogen peroxide.

Commenting on the development, 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.

"We have already shown that gold nanoparticles supported by titanium oxide could convert methane to methanol, but we simplified the chemistry further and took away the titanium oxide powder. The results have been outstanding."

Hutchings added: "At present global natural gas production is circa 2.4 billion tons per annum and 4 percent of this is flared into the atmosphere - roughly 100 million tons. Cardiff Catalysis Institute's approach to using natural gas could use this 'waste' gas[,] saving CO2 emissions. In the US there is now a switch to shale gas, and our approach is well suited to using this gas as it can enable it to be liquefied so it can be readily transported."

Hutchings says commercialization "will take time", but notes that the research has "major implications for the preservation of natural gas reserves as fossil fuel stocks dwindle across the world".

Dr. James J. Spivey, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Louisiana State University, remarked: "This research is of significant value to the scientific and industrial communities. The conversion of our shale resources into higher value intermediates like methanol provide new routes for chemical intermediates."

Image: Professor Graham Hutchings, Regius Professor of Physical Chemistry and Director of Cardiff University's Catalysis Institute.