Turning wasted Methane into liquid fuel


A new way to harness wasted methane

Approach developed at MIT could help curb needless ‘flaring’ of potent greenhouse gas.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Methane gas, a vast natural resource, is often disposed of through burning, but new research by scientists at MIT could make it easier to capture this gas for use as fuel or a chemical feedstock.

Many oil wells burn off methane — the largest component of natural gas — in a process called flaring, which currently wastes 150 billion cubic meters of the gas each year and generates a staggering 400 million tons of carbon dioxide, making this process a significant contributor to global warming. Letting the gas escape unburned would lead to even greater environmental harm, however, because methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is.

Flaring of oil field gas burns Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and reduces ozone (O3) emissions. Image from North Dakota Department of Health and Air Quality

Why is all this methane being wasted, when at the same time natural gas is touted as an important “bridge” fuel as the world steers away from fossil fuels, and is the centerpiece of the so-called shale-gas revolution? The answer, as the saying goes in the real estate business, is simple: location, location, location.

The wells where methane is flared away are primarily being exploited for their petroleum; the methane is simply a byproduct. In places where it is convenient to do so, methane is captured and used to generate electrical power or produce chemicals. However, special equipment is needed to cool and pressurize methane gas, and special pressurized containers or pipelines are needed to transport it. In many places, such as offshore oil platforms or remote oil fields far from the needed infrastructure, that’s just not economically viable.

But now, MIT chemistry professor Yogesh Surendranath and three colleagues have found a way to use electricity, which could potentially come from renewable sources, to convert methane into derivatives of methanol, a liquid that can be made into automotive fuel or used as a precursor to a variety of chemical products. This new method may allow for lower-cost methane conversion at remote sites. The findings, described in the journal ACS Central Science, could pave the way to making use of a significant methane supply that is otherwise totally wasted.

Existing industrial processes for converting methane to liquid intermediate chemical forms requires very high operating temperatures and large, capital-intensive equipment. Instead, the researchers have developed a low-temperature electrochemical process that would continuously replenish a catalyst material that can rapidly carry out the conversion. This technology could potentially lead to “a relatively low-cost, on-site addition to existing wellhead operations,” says Surendranath, who is the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Chemistry.

The electricity to power such systems could come from wind turbines or solar panels close to the site, he says. This electrochemical process, he says, could provide a way to do the methane conversion — a process also known as functionalizing — “remotely, where a lot of the ‘stranded’ methane reserves are.”

Already, he says, “methane is playing a key role as a transition fuel.” But the amount of this valuable fuel that is now just flared away, he says, “is pretty staggering.” That vast amount of wasted natural gas can even be seen in satellite images of the Earth at night, in areas such as the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota that light up as brightly as big metropolitan areas due to flaring. Based on World Bank estimates, global flaring of methane wastes an amount equivalent to approximately one-fifth of U.S. natural gas consumption.

When that gas gets flared off rather than directly released, Surendranath says, “you’re reducing the environmental harm, but you’re also wasting the energy.” Finding a way to do methane conversion at sufficiently low cost to make it practical for remote sites “has been a grand challenge in chemistry for decades,” he says. What makes methane conversion so tough is that the carbon-hydrogen bonds in the methane molecule resist being broken, and at the same time there’s a risk of overdoing the reaction and ending up with a runaway process that destroys the desired end-product.

Catalysts that could do the job have been studied for many years, but they typically require harsh chemical agents that limit the speed of the reaction, he says. The key new advance was adding an electrical driving force that could be tuned precisely to generate more potent catalysts with very high reaction rates. “Since we’re using electricity to drive the process, this opens up new opportunities for making the process more rapid, selective, and portable than existing methods,” Surendranath says. And in addition, “we can access catalysts that no one has observed before, because we’re generating them in a new way.”

The result of the reaction is a pair of liquid chemicals, methyl bisulfate and methanesulfonic acid, which can be further processed to make liquid methanol, a valuable chemical intermediate to fuels, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. The additional processing steps needed to make methanol remain very challenging and must be perfected before this technology can be implemented on an industrial scale. The researchers are actively refining their method to tackle these technological hurdles.


The research team included postdoc Matthew O’Reilly and doctoral students Rebecca Soyoung Kim and Seokjoon Oh, all in MIT’s Department of Chemistry. The work was supported by the Italian energy company Eni S.p.A. through the MIT Energy Initiative.


ARCHIVE: Turning greenhouse gas into gasoline http://news.mit.edu/2016/greenhouse-gas-into-gasoline-1115

The study: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acscentsci.7b00342



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Pop Piasa

Is this anything like Nitromethane, the only motor fuel left in the book On The Beach?


We combine nitromethane with methanol to get fuel for our rc model airplanes.

Walter Sobchak

Isn’t nitromethane wthe fuel they use in Drag Racers?

The Rick

What the fudge! The action of flaring is “…making this process a significant contributor to global warming”. Really? really? come on guys – THERE IS NO GLOBAL WARMING


They really try hard to placate the GW ownership group don’t they? Oh well it looks like a good idea and they generate some publicity for their idea which seems good (just my SWAG).

To be honest I just read this part “in a process called flaring, which currently wastes 150 billion cubic meters of the gas each year” and then mentally skipped the AGW. It’s a skill you develop by reading here 🙂

I’ve always thought that flarring it off was daft. I understood and accept the economics of why it’s done but just seems like such a waste. Think of all the stuff you can do with the amount of electricity derived from 150 BCM. Lots of fun useful projects.

Nigel S

Methanol is like ethanol except it kills you much quicker.

I: I wouldn’t drink that if I was you.
Withnail [clutching a bottle of lighter fluid]: Why not?
I: Because I don’t advise it. Even the wankers on the site wouldn’t drink that, that’s worse than meths.
Withnail: Nonsense. This is a far superior drink to meths. The wankers don’t drink it because they can’t afford it.


Fascinating. But will it be economic if you include the cost of the turbines/solar panels and pipelines/compressors needed to collect the gas and send it to the reactor?


Good points, 15 to 20 years age I worked on a massive project to stop flaring of stranded natural gas in the middle east with new technology including expensive catalyst. The article is not clear why this is better or cheaper than all the existing technologies. As you indicate there is a lot more to it than a lab experiment and building a plant is expensive unless the stranded gas is cheap. Solar panels are not going to solve the problem because any commercial plant of significance cannot shut down every night.
The project I worked on over quite a few years hinged on the price of the gas. Once the Country that owns and flares the gas realized it suddenly had value the price went up dramatically and effectively killed the economics of the project.
Technology already exists to collect and process the gas. Stranded gas has other problems as you mention that may not be solved by MIT.

john harmsworth

Several companies make generators that can run off wellhead gas. A little scrubbing and a regulator and Bob’s your uncle. Let these new fangled guys compete with the existing technologies. Flared gas is an available and cheap resource with some drawbacks. Sounds like a job for Capitalism. If the government stays away we might get a winning idea.
Methane is many times more potent as a greenhouse gas- so many times indiscernible is what? The world stopped warming 18 years ago!

You can do it with spark ignition engines made by a number of companies, turbines and even dual fuel diesel engines.

Makes this a nice paper, but conversion to electricity by combustion is well-known. Depends on economics and where the nearest distribution lines are.

Louis Hooffstetter

Can you imagine the day when “personal energy generators” (https://www.wired.com/2011/01/body-power/) will be connected to diapers on cows (and perhaps even devices in our underwear) to harness the power of biologically generated methane? It will probably be required by law in California any day now.

Kickstarter / GoFundMe anyone?

TJB, there is already a company doing this…


Joe Willmann

I would guess that the economics look bad. If they were good they would recommend using burning methane to produce the electricity to convert or use the conversion products to generate the electricity needed. If that worked it would be viable and would not require connection to the grid. The fact that the article didn’t suggest that implies to me that the energy generated by the product is less than the energy to produce it. We will see.


wouldn’t it be simplest to convert the gas to electricity and feed it into the grid. Small generators sited near wells and connected to existing lines, or new lines strung on existing poles.

Walter Sobchak

Why not LNG? You can use part of the gas to power the compression liquefaction process.

Curious George

Or freeze it in water – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methane_clathrate. You only need a moderate cooling at a moderate pressure.


Economics of scale. You need a HUGE amount of gas for a LNG plant to be economical.


The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement does not allow more than just temporary flaring of natural gas in the US offshore waters. And the government is also working toward not allowing flaring of gas onshore in the US. I imagine that this wouldn’t work in the US as there is very little wasted methane.


If this process is energy intensive why not extract some energy from the current waste methane to liquefy the remaining methane. Seems their method converts the methane into wood alcohol (methanol).

Can this process take raw gas to make this process work or is refinement of the raw stock required first?
And, it seems they are a bit premature in the release:
“The additional processing steps needed to make methanol remain very challenging and must be perfected before this technology can be implemented on an industrial scale.”

I suspect that they are FAR from economically viable.
Even from my coming alma mater I take these releases with a grain of salt.

John MacDonald

As is often the case, there is no mention of the operating conditions, especially feedstock pressure. Most flared methane is at relatively low pressure, led than 250 psi, because capture at low pressures is very expensive in the compression equipment needed.
Another thought. If the sulfur compounds mentioned are products, does this new process work more efficiently with sulfur sour natural gas as feedstock? Potentially could solve two problems at once.

R. Shearer

H2S will kill their catalyst.

Tom Halla

As there is no costing even estimated, so much green vaporware


But now, MIT chemistry professor Yogesh Surendranath and three colleagues have found a way to use electricity, which could potentially come from renewable sources

Could potentially? This could be funny, if it were not laughable. Given you operate to pick up waste fossil methane, you’d of course use the methane as the source of energy. Unless EROEI is negative… Just give me a break, this appears to be exactly a ‘cunning plan’.

Gary Kerkin

Cunning Plan?

Please! That’s insulting Blackadder and Baldric!

Steve Zell

[Quote from article] The electricity to power such systems could come from wind turbines or solar panels close to the site, he says. This electrochemical process, he says, could provide a way to do the methane conversion — a process also known as functionalizing — “remotely, where a lot of the ‘stranded’ methane reserves are.”

Since wind turbines or solar panels only work in favorable (windy or sunny) weather, a better option would be to burn a small fraction of the methane in a gas turbine to generate the electricity, then use the electricity to convert the remaining methane.

If the products of the MIT reaction are methyl bisulfate or methanesulfonic acid, this requires the presence of large amounts of sulfuric or sulfurous acid as a reactant– about 5 to 6 times the mass of methane reacted. Where would a remote petroleum production site get that much sulfuric or sulfurous acid from?

Methanesulfonic acid is a solid below 68 F, and a liquid above 68 F, with a boiling point of about 550 F. It could be transported as a liquid in slightly heated railcars, but if it was desired to reverse the reaction to use the methane as a fuel, what would be done with all the sulfurous acid? Ship it back to the production site?

Due to the necessity of handling large amounts of extremely corrosive sulfuric or sulfurous acid, it doesn’t seem like this process is very practical at remote petroleum production sites.

There is nothing in physics that supports the idea that there is such a thing as a greenhouse gas, let alone a potent one.

PB, that is incorrect. In 1859 Tyndall rigorously proved in the lab that there are several GHG, including CO2 and H2O. But, that experimental,proof does not say anything about how GHG affect a turbulent convective atmosphere with lapse rates and clouds.

Gary Kerkin

The absorptive nature of CO2 and CO is such that IR radiation absorption can be used to determine the compositions of the gases. 40 or more years ago we used a Grubb-Parsons Poly IRGA (infra red gas analyser) for that purpose. It did, however, have one, very significant, drawback: the sample gas stream had to be dried (i.e. water removed) or the results would be meaningless. This consideration first alerted me to a potential flaw in the AGW hypothesis.

Brett Keane

October 18, 2017 at 1:36 pm: Now is your chance, ristvan, to put these proofs on show here. For inspection and discussion. Because the claim is indeed extraordinary…..

Brett Keane

Brett Keane
October 18, 2017 at 2:10 pm: I should add that Prof Robert Wood demonstrated that even in the Lab the gas did not matter. Only the greenhouse blocking convection matters, and he was a skilled Optical Physicist. Konrad Hartman and Berthold-Klein have repeated the refutation in recent years….absorbtion must have emission, if collision alows things to get that far. Very rare at anything like normal Pressures

Gary, Tyndall himself recognized that water vapor is the most important GHG. See Wiki for references. And yes, to measure the rest you have to have dry air. Tyndall solved that experimentally. You also have to have clean air (dust free). He also solved that experimental problem, and in so doing contributed another proof of Pasteur’s germ theory of infection/putrification. And when a subsequent repeat heated broth experiment failed to confirm, discovered bacterial endospores and then their kill via “Tyndallization”. A scientific giant of his time.

BK, look up Tyndall’s 1859 report to the Royal Society. It is still available on line. Wiki has a sketch of the experimental apparatus Tyndall used, and for Wiki also provides a lot of supportive primary source references.
I need to provide you exactly nothing. You need to learn how to educate yourself. I aint going to do it for you, as you apparently are not capable of education.) GHG are real. Their global impact is still very much uncertain. Provably, the CAGW predicted by models is wrong, as have written here and elsewhere manyntimes. You do skeptics no favor by doubting incontrovertible basic physics facts easily checked by anyone—proving only your regretable lack of basic knowledge.

Louis Hooffstetter

Note to self:
Don’t call out ristvan…


Ristvan can be pretty wash-and-rinse to doubters of basic physics. Skeptics have the issue with people who want proofs to be served in easy and short pieces. Science has not been easy for hundreds of years. Physics was using really really hard maths already 150 years ago. Most maths done after 1900 is totally incomprehensible to other than professional mathematicians. Most of the professionals have a small sector inside maths they work on. So the distance between a good professional and a layman is larger than ever.

I’m skeptical not because I’d doubt what CO2 absorbs, but because the consequences are multidiciplinary and thus not daily beef to those who unwittingly push the ‘97% consensus stuff’. They don’t have an idea what the 97 is about, so how could they understand the actual problem?

But I’m only skeptical, because in the end the scentists are laymen on other topics just like I am on theirs.

F. Leghorn

“GHG are real”. Grammar, syntax and proper spelling are real concepts, too. If you wish to be taken seriously you might want to learn how to use the English language. It will prevent people from immediately assuming you are just a leftist troll. Maybe…

Crispin in Waterloo

“The electricity to power such systems could come from wind turbines or solar panels close to the site, he says. This electrochemical process, he says, could provide a way to do the methane conversion — a process also known as functionalizing — “remotely, where a lot of the ‘stranded’ methane reserves are.””

This proposal is so dumb as to astonish! If you have on site methane to convert to methanol using electricity, you burn some of the methane or the methanol in a generator and make the electricity needed. This is done routinely in remote locations to power instrument stations or pumping eq2uipment.

There are thermoelectric generators that are heated by burning the available gas to generate electricity. One of the available units puts out 30 kW – no engine or engine maintenance required.


LNG carrying ships very often use LNG (cargo. mostly methane) as fuel [excluding the Diesel-powered Q-Flexes and Q-Maxes – and these are being considered for conversion to run on LNG].


john harmsworth

Better not let Al Gore find out about this! Harumph-umph-umph!!!


Larger amounts of “stranded” gas is often used to run a gas-turbine to produce electricity. A problem is that the gas hasn’t been processed and is often rather impure. Most modern gas turbines can’t use this. I happen to know about it because a factory near my home manufactures a gas turbine which can use very low quality gas and is mostly used with stranded gas. The company is almost ashamed of it, because it is basically low-efficiency fifties technology, but it sells steadily because “you can very nearly run it on wood chips” as one of the engineers told me.


For every well there is a different off gas that needs to be flared. A general solution like this has a long way to go before it becomes even close to commercially viable.

Retired Kit P

The key word is ‘may’!

It is a simple task to run flare gas through an ICE designed for sour gas and produce electricity. There are many examples of this associated with landfills, sewage plants and dairy farms. This is generally the cheapest source of renewable energy.

While practical it is not economical. It is a little absurd to suggest that subsidized renewable energy be used be used to produce non-renewable energy. Just subsidize non renewable energy by calling it ‘waste’ energy conversion.

john harmsworth

Several companies sell and install such generators for wellhead application. Volume and quality of gas are factors but it is done quite commonly.


I’m like everyone else on this one…..they are burning/flaring and looking for a way to generate elec??

This wont fly commercially. The likely winner at eliminating flaring is Siluria Technologies. They have developed two catalysts. One does OCM, converting methane to ethane. The second Is ETL, ethane to liquids. By tuning the ETL catalyst, makes gasoline, diesel, or jet kerosene. Technology is scalable from small to very big. Pilot OCM plant has been running successfully for now two years. Major heavy hitter industrial backers.
Put modular Siluria catalysis facilities on rigs or remote oil locations where nat gas gathering isn’t economic, make and store fuels for later transport. No major electrical input.

R. Shearer

It’s ethylene, not ethane, but anyway that step is challenging.

Dr Dave

Anyone COULD do a simple word search of this article… and find that the word “COULD” was used eight times.

This article COULD be yet another example of a meaningless university press release


Dr Dave
It is a publication. Of sorts.
It is not, therefore, meaningless.
Tenure is sought – and this helps.


Pop Piasa

Tenure in academia is nothing but a call to authority validateded by salary increases


Interesting comments, but they all miss one essential point: Flaring is the safest method of disposing of other things like H2S, which sometimes occur in the gas stream. H2S is highly toxic and corrosive. Attempting to capture and use a gas stream contaminated with even small amounts of H2S is a really, really bad idea.

Flaring can serve as an environmentally responsible and safe way to dispose of other undesirable or dangerous byproducts.

Dr. Bob

I was involved in Fischer-Tropsch technology development where flared methane could be a feedstock. But methane from wells varies a lot in production volume and quality. Plus a fixed instillation needs a 20 year supply at constant flow to be commercially viable. Wells don’t produce constant volume or quality, so a fixed location plant generally won’t be built. This will be true for other instillations as well unless made portable so they can be relocated to a new well when production declines. All technologies proposed to capture flared gas have these issues to face.
I find it hard to believe that electric power that must be generated and paid for can be economically used to convert methane to anything. The cost of the instillation must be included in the project cost. Then there is the intermittent nature of renewable power to consider. Who in their right mind would invest in a continuous manufacturing process that had to be shut down daily for 16 hours in the case of solar or at indeterminate intervals in the case of wind.
I brought this up to a UC professor who proposed solar thermal gasification of biomass. He was a Chem E professor but hadn’t even considered that continuous processes necessarily don’t like to be run intermittently. Go Figure!

Gary Kerkin

Even though the main product streams are natural gas or refinery feedstock, by products like methane have values and I would imagine that considerable efforts have been made to develop some way of recovering them. I can only conclude that thus far it has proved uneconomic. I can’t see this process doing that at present and with all the uncertaintities hinted at. Time will tell.


He was a Chem E professor but hadn’t even considered that continuous processes necessarily don’t like to be run intermittently.

As I just said above,

‘in the end the sc[i]entists are laymen on other topics’.


I like to ‘read’ at this site, because I find it interesting.. tho’ I have absolutely no scientific background.. so, Dr. Bob, excuse me if this is a dumb question: where you use “instillilation”… do you mean “installation”??


sorry, spelling should be “instillation” in my question to Dr. Bob.


I’ve always been amazed by this massive waste of a good energy source. I now know a bit more about why that is done. Hopefully this will start getting exploited instead of being thrown into the sky.


The more I read from the comments the less I see this as a “good” energy source. It seems rather dirty, and contains rather nasty undesired components. All the proposed reclamation efforts seem to either be cost prohibitive in that hey require significant processing of this byproduct to reclaim anything useful.

If wishes were fishes….


“I’ve always been amazed by this massive waste of a good energy source.”

Good point, except the flared methane is neither a “massive” waste, nor a good energy source. Let real professionals burn it, they know what they are doing, contrary to academic and greenie backseat drivers.

john harmsworth

Exactly! This gas has value. It just isn’t high enough to get any investment, even though some decent ideas have been tried. It gets used productively in accordance with it’s real value-as determined by the market. To invest more in it would be a waste of economic resources that would be better spent elsewhere. Healthcare? Road safety? Education? Drug rehab? Take your pick.

This is another of many potential technologies to use waste energy. Not anywhere near reality. It will be interesting to monitor and see if it develops.

Martin Mason

What a load of rubbish. There are very few places now where Methane is flared in oil production even in the underdeveloped countries and it doesn’t need high temperatures but Cryogenics. The places where it is flared and where there is no economic justification to convert the Methane to LNG won’t adopt the new technology whatever it is. Converting Methane to LNG requires refrigeration and refrigerated shipping. Why are these people allowed to publish such nonsense


Cryogenics also requires expensive compression and expansion.


Refrigeration, a bit of refrigerated shipping – but above all – Insulation!
Boil-off rates are coming down on LNG/Carriers. ten years ago, about 0.7% per day, IIRC.
More recently – about 0.5%. Some recent tenders have looked at lower rates, still.
[Not sure if they have been (or will be) achieved.


john harmsworth

For the most part, gas is condensed by pressurizing it and then cooling it with ambient air. To actually condense it by refrigerating it would cost a fantastic amount of energy. Once it is condensed it can be kept from boiling off by cooling it. The difference is latent heat versus sensible heat.


The expander is a key element of gas liquefaction.
comment image


Loren Wilson

Methane must be cooled to below 190 K to liquify it under pressure. Above this temperature, you cannot compress it to form a liquid. To store the liquid in bulk, you need to cool it to its normal boiling point of 111.7 K. This requires very expensive refrigeration with multiple cycles, and is only done economically when you have a massive plant and a customer who is willing to pay a lot more than $3 per thousand cubic feet of gas at 60°F and 1 atmosphere = approx. 1 million BTU. Another added cost is that you have to remove all other gasses except nitrogen to sub-ppm levels or they will freeze out and stop the plant. In commercial natural gas, you can let 2-3% CO2 slip past the treatment section. Not so in an LNG plant.

R. Shearer

~ 140 billion m3 are flared annually world wide.


methane and ice: good fun but don’t let kids do it

Basic principle is “show me a working prototype”
cos theory is one thing


The electricity could also come from a fuel cell or a small generator powered by the methane.
These methods would have the added advantage of being able to continue converting the methane when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Why did the authors have to mess up an otherwise good article by insisting that the electricity had to be provided by wind or solar?

Bruce Cobb

Hmmm….There is plenty of “wasted energy” everywhere and anywhere you want to look. But that misses the point. The question is, is it economical to try to capture it? “Food waste” is another greenie-inspired bugaboo that gets bandied about. There’s much hand-wringing about it but nothing is ever done, probably because there isn’t much that could be done which wouldn’t end up costing money.

Robert Christopher

The electricity could be generated from gas (Methane) turbines – it would be a more reliable energy source! 🙂

Gary Kerkin

Insufficient quantities and variable compositions to be viable. However, the pumps to shift natural gas over long distances are often powered by gas turbines burning some of the product.


But there is no real evidence that CO2 has any effect on climate and plenty of scientific reasoning to support the idea that the climate sensivity of CO2 is zero. The radiant greenhouse has not been observed anywhere in the solar system including the Earth. The radiant greenhouse effect is science fiction.

john harmsworth

A real inconvenient truth!

Another example of an otherwise meaningless university press release coattailed on CAGW. Essay Blowing Smoke has a classic example from 2014.

Great – an idea for converting a harmless byproduct into a highly toxic chemical which has to be transported from remote locations.



The electricity to power such systems could come from wind turbines or solar panels close to the site,

Or, from generators burning methane


“The electricity to power such systems could come from wind turbines or solar panels close to the site”

All that says is the authors are dumb as rock.


What do you have against rock?
A small pile of sharp sand, after a Fohn has blown through, I suggest.

Auto – a bit vituperative tonight.
Sorry if I have offended Fohn fans.

Gary Pearse

Pump it back in the ground and store it. It would enhance oil prod a tiny bit and it may become more producible in 20years. If there is sulphur in it. Flare it!! Oh, that’s what they were doing!

Pat Frank

It’s just another semi pie-in-the-sky press release. The oxidation of methane occurs in a solvent consisting of 98% sulfuric acid or fuming sulfuric acid and the reaction is at elevated temperature.

These are extremely corrosive conditions that require extremes of containment.

The reaction uses palladium (precious metal) catalyst, the reaction rates are slow, and the concentrations of products are very low.

The products are not methanol — CH3OH — but methane sulfonic acid (CH3SO3H) and methane sulfate (CH3OSO3H).

These products need further chemical processing to convert to methanol.

In other words, it’s an interesting laboratory demonstration that has no immediate technological significance. In fact, the process has no particular visible technological significance.

Hooking the idea as able to run off solar voltaic or wind power is utterly irrelevant. It’s just sustainability window-dressing meant to appeal to environmental sapism.

Here are the title and abstract: Matthew E. O’Reilly, R. Soyoung Kim, Seokjoon Oh, and Yogesh Surendranath “Catalytic Methane Monofunctionalization by an Electrogenerated High-Valent Pd Intermediate” DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.7b00342

Electrophilic high-valent metal ions are potent intermediates for the catalytic functionalization of methane, but in many cases, their high redox potentials make these intermediates difficult or impossible to access using mild stoichiometric oxidants derived from O2. Herein, we establish electrochemical oxidation as a versatile new strategy for accessing high-valent methane monofunctionalization catalysts. We provide evidence for the electrochemical oxidation of simple PdSO4 in concentrated sulfuric acid electrolytes to generate a putative Pd2III,III species in an all-oxidic ligand field. This electrogenerated high-valent Pd complex rapidly activates methane with a low barrier of 25.9 (±2.6) kcal/mol, generating methanol precursors methyl bisulfate (CH3OSO3H) and methanesulfonic acid (CH3SO3H) via concurrent faradaic and nonfaradaic reaction pathways. This work enables new electrochemical approaches for promoting rapid methane monofunctionalization.

Michael S. Kelly

“Many oil wells burn off methane — the largest component of natural gas — in a process called flaring, which currently wastes 150 billion cubic meters of the gas each year and generates a staggering 400 million tons of carbon dioxide, making this process a significant contributor to global warming.”

There is about 3.5×10^12 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today. Adding 400 million more tons changes the total by 0.01%, assuming another mechanism of the carbon cycle doesn’t respond to take it out.

These people are staggered by absolute numbers, when they have no sense of proportion whatsoever.

Michael J. Dunn

And the whole methane capture objective is misconceived anyway, because free methane will naturally be oxidized in the atmosphere to water and carbon dioxide. It is not a persistent gas.

The only method of methane capture not mentioned above would be to pump it into cold water under pressure to form methane clathrate.


— Yogesh Surendranath and three colleagues have found a way to use electricity, which could potentially come from renewable sources, to convert methane into derivatives of methanol —
This is a good thing in and of itself. It gives an alternative, I’m hoping more efficient, method of turning methane to methanol. Maybe someday the method will be useful, maybe not.
The problem comes if someone mandates or artificially incentivizes its use.


If this pans out this would be great news.


You can safely assume that it won’t.


I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about why natural gas is flared. Oil companies don’t want to waste
a resource that has value.

In the case of a new gas well, extensive flaring can occur when a well is fraced using CO2 or N2. It’s the pipeline companies that determine how and when gas is put in their pipeline not the oil companies. If there is too much CO2 or N2 in the gas left over from the frac, it has to be flared until the gas meets pipeline specs. But it can take a lot of flaring to meet pipeline specs.

If the gas naturally contains H2S or CO2 ( and other inerts), that gas must be processed in a plant prior to entry into the sales gas line.

Continuous gas venting at oil wells usually happens when the well is remote and the oil is transported by truck and there is not a pipeline for the oil or gas to be delivered to a central battery where the gas can be captured and compressed into the sales pipeline. If there is a lot of oil and gas produced at the well, a pipeline will be built.

There is usually a lot less gas vented at new oil wells than a new gas well. But there are a lot more oil wells drilled.

Wild cat wells usually require more flaring. The oil company does more flow testing to determine the size and characteristics of the reservoir and size the surface production equipment needed.

There are other examples of why flaring is done but it would be an unusual situation where the oil company flared gas when it had an option of selling the gas for a profit.

There is a minor amount of gas vented on location. Usually to operate the pneumatic valves or coming off the condensate/oil tanks on a hot day.

If you flare a potent greenhouse gas, it is destroyed and no longer a potent greenhouse gas. It is water and carbon dioxide.


A few points about flaring.

It can never be completely eliminated. For one thing every refinery or processing plant must have a flare for safety reasons. This is so that any leakage of combustibles can be piped to a place where it can be safely combusted. NB. This also includes biogas plants.

Also a fair amount of the flaring you see in oil-fields are from wells that are not yet in production, or are in a production test phase. Nobody will ever build a complex processing plant for a well that might be abandoned and sealed up a few weeks hence.

The main method to achieve less flaring is more pipelines. By the way this is also one of the reasons the hottest area for “unconventional oil” is currently the Permian Basin. This is an old field that has been in production for a cetury and there is a good pipeline infrastructure.

Steve R

If the location is remote enough to leave the gas economically stranded then what is the point in converting it to an even lower value product?


If the product fits in the same pipe used for oil, it makes sense

Steve R

I don’t think it would be wise to send methanol thru a petroleum pipeline.


“The work was supported by the Italian energy company Eni”.
Oil companies people have been working on finding a use for flared gas for since the very beginning. Hence the boom in LNG, for instance.
They obviously are still working on it… Just fine, but don’t expect miracle

Geoff Withnell

Possibly a stupid question. But why are we going so high tech? Run the flare gas through a boiler, use the steam generated to run an engine that powers a generator. One could probably mass produce a unit to do this.


Flares exist even in refineries that use boilers to operate. Even there it makes no sense, says it all


Flares exist even in refineries that use boilers to operate. Even there it makes no sense, says it all

So, flare gasses in refineries are needed as a safety feature. When, not if but when a very high pressure reaction tower or tank loses electricity or has a problem, the thousands of pounds of explosive, high-pressure, semi-reacted gasses and chemicals MUST be vented off away from the tank before they explode, or before the chemicals kills thousands as in Bhopol. So, a flare tower several hundred feet tall, several hundred feet from other tanks and towers is kept continuously running. When an emergency happens, large pressure relief valves vent off the explosive/toxic gasses and liquids to the flare tower where they can burn off without exploding other tanks and pressure vessels. After burning, the flared gasses are no longer toxic – merely sulfates, fluorides and fluorates, CO2, and heat. Lots and lots of heat.

MIT wake up and do a bit of due diligence. There is a company, led by Dr. Robert Zubrin of the “Case for Mars” fame who is already doing this commercially.


michael hart

Chemically interesting, but with caveats, some bigger than others. The usual problems such as catalyst poisoning, the expense of metals used (Palladium in this case), and the use of problematic aggressive/toxic reagents (concentrated sulfuric acid in this case) may not be insurmountable (in theory, at least)

But, more importantly, electrochemical-catalysis reaction conditions require solution phase chemistry. However, you are then faced with having to separate the catalyst from the reaction products in order to recycle the catalyst and use it again: Complicated, time consuming, probably low yield, expensive, messy.
The best industrially-useful catalysts are heterogeneous-phase, and can therefore be used in a continuous-flow process. Thus, for example, the catalyst in a car exhaust stays intact in one place while the exhaust gases pass over it, and away….the products thus being quickly and easily separated from the catalyst in ~100% separation-yield… But their process can’t work in this fashion because the electrochemistry requires reagents and catalyst dissolved in an electrolyte solution for current to flow.

“making this process a significant contributor to global warming”

The reason methane is a more powerful GHG is because it’s already at a very low level where the incremental effect while small, is larger than the tiny effect from incremental CO2. However; methane only affects a tiny part of the absorption spectrum, thus even if those bands were saturated, it would still have a total effect far less than either CO2 or H2O.

Michael J. Dunn

And, as I mentioned previously, methane is not a persistent gas; it naturally oxidizes in the air to form water and carbon dioxide. So, it will always be at a “low level.”


Another issue here is the nature of the international oil business. Basically international oil companies install oil facilities and produce oil for a host country because the host country is, for various reasons, unwilling or incapable of doing it on their own. A portion of the produced oil goes to the oil company to pay for the facility and for profit. From the host countries perspective/negotiation this portion is as small as possible. The significant remainder goes to the host country as basic income. The produced gas could be used to generate electricity for the host country (as is done in basically all ‘developed’ countries). However, producing, transmitting and distributing this electricity costs money which HAS to be paid for by the host country out of their oil income. In many cases they would rather spend the money on various local issues. Distribution of the ‘new’ power also has to be paid for and executed by the host country, which can be difficult is some countries. Getting third world consumers to pay is also difficult.