Natural gas needs to be very tightly compressed and cooling to very cold temperatures will help to get worthwhile volumes suitable for transport use. Those pressures and temperatures pose high levels of engineering and materials quality compared to a simple gasoline tank.  But the payoff for a low cost low-pressure ambient natural gas storage solution would offer more millions of vehicles freedom from the foreign oil tether.

A Northwestern University (NU) research team is hot on porous crystals called metal-organic frameworks, with their nanoscopic pores and incredibly high surface areas that are excellent materials for natural gas storage.  Metal–organic frameworks (MOFs) are porous materials constructed from modular molecular building blocks, typically metal clusters and organic linkers. These can, in principle, be assembled to form an almost unlimited number of MOFs, yet materials reported to date represent only a tiny fraction of the possible combinations.

Metal Organic Framework Sample Images. Click image for more info..

Metal-organic frameworks come in millions of different possible structures, so where does research zero in?

A (NU) research team has developed a computational method that can save scientists and engineers valuable time in the discovery process. Their new computer algorithm automatically generates and tests hypothetical metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), rapidly zeroing in on the most promising structures. These MOFs then can be synthesized and tested in the lab.

Using their new method the researchers quickly identified more than 300 different MOFs that are predicted to be better than any known material for methane (natural gas) storage. The researchers then synthesized one of the promising materials and found it beat the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) natural gas storage target by 10 percent.

In addition to gas storage and vehicles that could burn natural gas, MOFs may lead to better drug-delivery, chemical sensors, carbon capture materials and catalysts. MOF candidates for these applications could be analyzed efficiently using the Northwestern method.

Team leader Randall Q. Snurr, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science explains the import of the research saying, “When our understanding of materials synthesis approaches the point where we are able to make almost any material, the question arises: Which materials should we synthesize?  This paper presents a powerful method for answering this question for metal-organic frameworks, a new class of highly versatile materials.”

The team’s study paper is “Large-Scale Screening of Hypothetical Metal-Organic Frameworks and was published by the journal Nature Chemistry. It also will appear as the cover story in the February print issue of the journal.

Graduate student in Snurr’s lab and first author of the paper Christopher E. Wilmer developed the new algorithm.  Omar K. Farha, research associate professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Joseph T. Hupp, professor of chemistry, led the synthesis efforts.

Wilmer takes the explanation of how the research affects the development of metal-organic frameworks, “Currently, researchers choose to create new materials based on their imagining how the atomic structures might look,” Wilmer said. “The algorithm greatly accelerates this process by carrying out such ‘thought experiments’ on supercomputers.”

The NU team was able to determine which of the millions of possible MOFs from a given library of 102 chemical building block components were the most promising candidates for natural-gas storage. In just 72 hours, the researchers generated more than 137,000 hypothetical MOF structures. This number is much larger than the total number of MOFs reported to date by all researchers combined (approximately 10,000 MOFs). The Northwestern team then winnowed that number down to the 300 most promising candidates for high-pressure, room-temperature methane storage.

The new computer algorithm combines the chemical “intuition” that chemists use to imagine novel MOFs with sophisticated molecular simulations to evaluate MOFs for their efficacy in different applications. The researchers say the algorithm could help remove the bottleneck in the discovery process.

The other people on the team are Michael Leaf, Chang Yeon Lee and Brad G. Hauser, all from NU.

13 million vehicles on the road worldwide today run on natural gas, including many buses in the U.S.  The number is expected to increase sharply due to recent discoveries of natural gas reserves with lower prices than gasoline.  Converting a vehicle to the fuel isn’t a major matter, albeit complex and includes a drop in available total power, as natural gas is lower than gasoline in energy density. Comparatively speaking, it’s a very cheap fuel.


5 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on December 7, 2011 7:32 AM

    This innovation is exciting. But, the process might be utilized to solve other materials engineering puzzles and lead to other significant discoveries.

  2. Advertise auto dealership on January 13, 2012 11:51 AM

    Admiring the time and effort you put into your website and detailed information you present. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same out of date rehashed information. Wonderful read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  3. Maarten Hulst on January 18, 2012 7:29 AM

    Very interesting,

    But what is the gas that burns best and most efficient in current combustion engines?

    Methane gas with a drop of hydrogen, I heard about a Swedish bus company getting good results. What I aim for to say is, is this technology also good for storage of a gas which is a methane and hydrogen, (to some named Hythane), and how many liters of space (theoretically speaking) should you have in a regular car, for this storage technology, to drive the same range as the car would do today.

    I see a great market for retrofitting cars with a natural gas or hythane storage system.

    We have already seen low pressure absorption tanks with carbon, fitted, but are not perfect.

    Green gas with about 5-8% hydrogen is best of course for existing cars to be retrofitted.

    Well let’s see how this technology will develop.

  4. on August 7, 2013 11:17 PM

    Hiya! Quick question that’s totally off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My web site looks weird when browsing from my apple iphone. I’m trying to
    find a template or plugin that might be able to fix this problem.
    If you have any suggestions, please share. Many thanks!

  5. Relevant EAM CMMS, Cable, and Lodging News for 12-9-2011 on December 5, 2013 7:54 AM

    […] A Better Way to Store Natural Gas Posted on New Energy and Fuel talks about a new discovery that would provide for a low cost, low pressure natural gas storage solution. […]

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind