May 4, 2009 — A new center to develop technologies for converting methane gas and other hydrocarbon and fossil resources into readily transportable and higher-value liquid fuels is being established at the University of Virginia under a new $11 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
U.Va.'s center is one of 46 new multi-million-dollar Energy Frontier Research Centers being funded by the Department of Energy. These centers, being established at universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and private firms, will pursue advanced research to alleviate some of the most pressing energy problems facing the nation this century.
The 46 centers were selected for funding from a pool of 260 applications after a rigorous merit review process. Each will be funded at $2 million to $5 million per year for an initial five-year period.
U.Va.'s new Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization will focus on identifying catalysts that will allow the conversion of methane into liquid fuels, including the reaction of methane and oxygen into methanol, which, if accomplished, would have the potential to greatly augment gasoline as a more environmentally friendly fuel.
"From a global perspective, energy demand is increasing each year and it is imperative that we develop alternative sources of energy that are economically viable and less harmful to the environment," said Brent Gunnoe, professor of chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences, who will head the multi-institutional center.
Nationally, growing energy demands will require a reduction in dependence on imported oil, along with a need to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. The new energy research centers will pursue breakthroughs essential to the development of alternative and renewable energy sources. The long-term goal is to seek replacements for fossil fuels.
"While in the short term we cannot eliminate carbon dioxide emissions, we can at least attenuate the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere per unit of energy we generate," Gunnoe said. "We see the eventual widespread use of methanol or other liquid fuel derived from natural gas as a bridge fuel for several decades until we have large-scale use of totally renewable energy resources that are carbon-neutral, such as the use of solar power."
Gunnoe said that large-scale use of methane as a fuel could substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions if used to supplant coal and petroleum.
"Methane burns much cleaner than gasoline, producing less carbon dioxide, and it would be economically viable for broader use if we can solve the chemistry problems that would allow conversion to liquid fuels."
The challenge for Gunnoe and his colleagues is in developing a catalyst that can take methane molecules and oxygen molecules and rearrange their atoms to make methanol. This is done in nature, but scientists have yet to develop the catalysts needed to do this artificially in mass quantities.
In addition, such technologies would be applicable to a wider range of important processes.
Natural gas, which is largely made up of methane, is an extremely abundant energy resource in the world, but many of the largest fields are located in remote areas, such as Alaska's North Slope, making access extremely difficult and expensive. The only feasible way to transport this energy resource would be to convert it from a gas to a liquid, thereby condensing the energy into transportable units. Transporting methane as a gas would require a substantial build-up of infrastructure and cost tens of billions of dollars for new pipelines.
"If we can find new technologies that will allow the large-scale utilization of methane, particularly in the transportation sector, the U.S. could very quickly supplant our use of petroleum and greatly reduce our dependence on foreign petroleum," Gunnoe said.
Methanol, if produced in massive quantities, could be mixed with gasoline like current ethanol/gasoline formulas, and therefore would not require changes to the way motor vehicle engines are designed. And current "flex fuel" engines that run on 85 percent ethanol with 15 percent gasoline still could run on an 85/15 mix of methanol/gasoline.
Methanol is preferable to ethanol because it would consume less gasoline in its production and would curb U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Also, ethanol is made from corn, which requires large-scale farming to divert an otherwise inexpensive food source toward fuel needs, thereby driving up food prices.
Gunnoe said there are many other uses for methanol, including, potentially, fuel cells that would generate electricity, and methanol-powered laptop computers. Methanol also can be converted to ethylene and propylene, which are used to make a variety of plastics.
"We envision methanol as a linchpin for many useful applications, but the missing link, currently, is the broad-scale conversion of natural gas to methanol or other liquid fuels," Gunnoe said.
"Sustainable sources of energy are a major challenge facing society, and universities are the place where grand challenges can be solved," said Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research. "New methods of catalysis are at the heart of tomorrow's energy economy, and Dr. Gunnoe's research team at U.Va. will lead the development of those critical new technologies."
Partners in the U.Va.-led center include scientists with a variety of areas of expertise at the California Institute of Technology, Princeton University, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Maryland, Iowa State University, the University of North Carolina, North Texas University, Yale University, and Scripps Research Institute –Florida.
Robert Davis, professor of chemical engineering, is a co-investigator on the project.
Additionally, Matt Neurock, a U.Va. chemical engineering professor, is a team member on another Energy Frontier Research Center, headquartered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The objective of that center, the Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and Transport Center, is to provide basic scientific understanding of phenomena that occur at interfaces in electrical energy storage, conversion of sunlight into fuels, geological sequestration of carbon dioxide, and other advanced energy systems.