Researchers discover materials to transform methane into fuel

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A team of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers has recently discovered materials that may transform methane from a greenhouse gas emission into an alternative energy source.

The team — made up of Amitesh Maiti, Roger Aines and Josh Stolaroff of the Livermore lab, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering Berend Smit, postdoctoral researcher Jihan Kim and graduate student Li-Chiang Lin — published the research in the journal Nature Communications on April 16.

The researchers used computer modeling to simulate the effectiveness of liquid solvents and nanoporous zeolites — porous materials commonly used as commercial adsorbents — in capturing methane in larger concentrations so it can function as a fuel instead of a wasted byproduct, according to Maiti.

“We are fairly confident in our work,” Maiti said. “And the most advanced computational techniques were used in the work, so we believe that our prediction will be fairly close to the real performance of the material once it is made and put to test.”

The research is groundbreaking because methane contributes 30 percent of global climate warming, second only to carbon dioxide in emissions, according to a Livermore lab press release.

Methane has potential as a cleaner fuel source than coal, but it must be collected in larger concentrations before it can be used, Maiti said. In lower concentrations, methane is only a wasted byproduct of industrial and natural processes.

“We emit methane at a large distribution of sites, from cattle farms to dairy,” said Daniel Kammen, a professor of public policy and nuclear engineering in the Energy and Resources Group. “So you need a low-cost technology that you can apply to a lot of sites, and this technology might be something we can deploy very widely.”

Although researchers have yet to create the material, Kammen imagined ways of implementing methane-capturing technology.

“I think what you would do is take materials that have this embedded in it, and you would place it in places where methane is being emitted, like at a chicken coop,” Kammen said.

UC Berkeley professor of biometeorology Dennis Baldocchi suggested another important application of methane capture at lagoons and wetlands, where methane is abundant.

“The manure (from the dairy industry) is going into these lagoons, and these lagoons tend not to have very much oxygen,” Baldocchi said. “These conditions are very ripe for producing large amounts of methane, and this methane is going into the atmosphere. So what we can do is harvest these lagoons for methane and use it to generate electricity.”

According to Kammen, the likely low cost of the technology could make it easier to implement in industry.

“We do need policies that make this attractive (to industries),” Kammen said. “Otherwise, this will be a great innovation that won’t go anywhere.”

Contact Yvonne Ng at [email protected].