American researchers have developed a simpler and cheaper method to produce fuel from natural gas.
The technique, requiring considerably lower temperatures to turn natural gas to fuel than conventional processes, promises to make natural gas products more competitive, possibly replacing oil-based products.
Currently, to produce fuels from alkanes (chemicals including methane and propane) in natural gas requires the substance to be heated to up to 900°C. For the new method, much lower temperatures – about 200°C – would be sufficient and the process would also require fewer steps and usage of cheaper metals.
While the conventional methods, developed mostly in the 1940s, need precious metals such as platinum, palladium, rhodium or gold, the new technique works with inexpensive ordinary metals including thallium and lead.
"Current technologies to convert natural gas into fuels or commodity chemicals are too expensive to compete with products generated from petroleum," said Roy Periana, director of the Scripps Energy and Materials Center at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida who led the study published in the journal Science.
Although almost all products manufactured from petroleum could also be produced using natural gas, the high costs have so far been holding the development back.
"The US has a glut of natural gas, and there are not that many ways to efficiently use it," said Brigham Young University's Daniel Ess, another of the researchers.
The invention, although not yet ready for commercialisation, comes as the world moves towards massive exploration of its natural gas reserves.
The team is now looking for commercial partners to cover the costs of the development and would like to launch a pilot plant within four years.
"This would lead to a paradigm change in the petrochemical industry, increase energy security and facilitate sustainability, as natural gas is cleaner than petroleum or coal," Periana added.