Lars Grabow has been given a $750,000 grant to solve a multi-billion dollar problem.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, is cheap and plentiful, thanks in large part to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Ideally, it could be converted into rarer and far more valuable chemicals like methanol, ethane or ethylene, all of which have dozens of uses, many involving the creation of plastics and polymers.
Easier said than done.
This research falls under the umbrella of catalysis, which uses one material to initiate or speed up a chemical reaction that changes other substances.
"For more than 30 years, people have tried to do this chemistry," said Grabow, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering with the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering. "It's the Holy Grail of catalysisIf you could invent a catalyst that selectively converts methane into ethylene, you'd be a billionaire right there."
In addition to the economic value of such a discovery, Grabow said, Holy Grail status is conferred by the methane molecule's strong carbon-hydrogen bonds and its unique shape. It is perfectly symmetrical, consisting of one carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms.
This symmetry means there's no obvious way to split a single hydrogen atom from methane, the first step in converting the gas into a new chemical. In fact, this split can only be carried out at very high temperatures. At these temperatures, the remaining methyl radical (one carbon with three hydrogens) detaches from the surface of the catalyst and simply burns off. As a result the methane is entirely wasted.
The key to solving this problem, Grabow believes, is finding the oxidizing agent essentially a molecule that can accept electrons from another molecule that is the most effective at reacting with and separating hydrogen atoms from methane molecules.
"We want to understand what role the oxidizing ag
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University of Houston