PerspectiveINDUSTRIAL CHEMISTRY

Making more from methane

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Science  22 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6433, pp. 1282-1283
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7738

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Summary

Methane, the major component in natural gas, is one of the most difficult molecules to activate in a controlled manner, because almost any initial oxidation product is easier to oxidize than methane itself and most of the product is carbon dioxide. Instead, methane is currently converted to syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, from which many useful products, such as methanol or Fischer-Tropsch hydrocarbons, can be synthesized in subsequent steps. However, syngas production is characterized by severe economies of scale. Economical plants must be very large, such as the so-called “MegaMethanol” plants or the Fischer-Tropsch Pearl complex in Qatar, where the total annual hydrocarbon production exceeds 10 million metric tons (MT). Thus, direct approaches for converting methane to valuable products that are also economical on a smaller scale are of extreme interest. Such processes could rescue so-called stranded natural gas that is produced in too small an amount and is too remote to transport economically. In the worst case, stranded natural gas extracted with other fossil fuels is burned (“flared”; see the photo). On page 1326 of this issue, Díaz-Urrutia and Ott (1) at the Grillo company report a direct process that converts methane directly to methanesulfonic acid, a chemical with many industrial uses.

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