A Washington State University scientific group has enhanced an important catalytic reaction popularly used in the gas and oil industries. The innovation could result in drastic energy savings and reduced pollution.
The study that has designated the paper of specific interest and importance is headed by Jean-Sabin McEwen, an assistant lecturer and Su Ha, an associate lecturer, of the Gene and Linda Volland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU.
Methane gas is a by-product in much of the gas and oil industry, where it may develop up during operations and result in a security concern. Methane also is a basic ingredient in natural gas employed to heat homes, and it can be transformed into numerous useful products including electricity. But breaking the robust bond between its hydrogen and carbon takes a huge volume of energy.
“It is an exceedingly happy molecule,” says McEwen. “It does not intend to break apart into pieces.” To transform methane, the gas and oil industry most often employs a nickel-based catalyst. But it is often cost-effective to simply burn the methane in giant flares on site. But, this adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, contributing to universal warming, and wastes energy. In the U.S., for instance, the volume of methane burned annually is as much as 25 percent of the country’s natural gas consumption.
“Right now, we just waste all such gases,” says Ha. “If we can effectively and efficiently transform methane from shale or gas fields to electric power or useful products, that would be highly positive.”
The scientists determined that they can drastically diminish the energy required to break the strong link between hydrogen and carbon by adding a small bit of carbon within the nickel-based catalyst. This creates nickel carbide, which generates a positive electronic field. This novel catalyst weakens the methane molecule’s hydrogen-carbon link, enabling it to break at much lower temperatures.
The scientists also identified that while too much volume of carbon in the catalyst kills the reaction, a very low concentration actually enhances it. They have built a numerical model of the reaction and are working to show the work experimentally.
“It is highly exciting to be conducting research in which experimentalists and computational scientists are working side by side to advance the field,” says Ha. “This required to be done more often in the sciences for the development of such breakthrough technologies.”
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