Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and it accounts for about 30% of the energy used in the United States. It is an odorless, gaseous mixture of hydrocarbons, mostly methane, which primarily powers electric power production and residential and commercial heating and cooking. It is also used to operate some natural gas vehicles.
Scientists at the University of Washington (UW) are now closer than ever to developing a way to turn this versatile energy resource into liquid gasoline, which would be easier to transport and store. Their research, published Oct. 23 in Science, demonstrates the first step of an important process that can selectively break just one of methane's carbon-hydrogen bonds and convert it to methanol or other liquids.
UW chemistry professor Karen Goldberg and her team used the rare metal rhodium to bind methane, forming a complex with the gas that remained in solution. This bound complex has the potential to be used to convert other hydrocarbons into liquid gasoline or other petroleum products.
The team's method uses high temperatures to separate long-chain hydrocarbon molecules from their short-chain counterparts. It also involves binding these complexes with heavy metal catalysts to form longer-chain hydrocarbons. This process is referred to as gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology. In addition to being easier to transport, GTL is an alternative to traditional petroleum-based transportation fuels, which are more volatile and expensive. It can also be used to replace coal as a heat source in power plants.