Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists have combined biology and 3-D printing to create the first reactor that can continuously produce methanol from methane at room temperature and pressure.

The team removed enzymes from methanotrophs, bacteria that eat methane, and mixed them with polymers that they printed or molded into innovative reactors.

Sarah Baker Examines Methane to Methanol Samples. Image Credit: LLNL. Click Image for the largest view.

Sarah Baker Examines Methane to Methanol Samples. Image Credit: LLNL. Click Image for the largest view.

The team’s research paper has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

The invention could lead to more efficient conversion to methane for energy production. Methane production may become a very practical bio fuel product, especially if it can economically be reformed and condensed into a liquid fuel, such as methanol.

The invention is packed with potential.

Sarah Baker, LLNL chemist and project lead said, “Remarkably, the enzymes retain up to 100 percent activity in the polymer. The printed enzyme-embedded polymer is highly flexible for future development and should be useful in a wide range of applications, especially those involving gas-liquid reactions.” The comment suggests that the current working invention could be a base for a new field.

Methane to Methanol Reactor from LLNL. Image Credit: LLNL. Click Image for the largest view.

Methane to Methanol Reactor from LLNL. Image Credit: LLNL. Click image for the largest view.

Advances in oil and gas extraction techniques have made vast new stores of natural gas, composed primarily of methane, available. However, a large volume of methane is leaked, vented or flared during these operations, partly because the gas is difficult to store and transport compared to more-valuable liquid fuels. Methane emissions also contribute about one-third of current net global warming potential, primarily from these and other distributed sources such as agriculture and landfills.

Current industrial technologies to convert methane to more valuable products, like steam reformation, operate at high temperature and pressure, require a large number of unit operations and yield a range of products. As a result, current industrial technologies have a low efficiency of methane conversion to final products and can only operate economically at very large scales.

A technology to efficiently convert methane to other hydrocarbons is needed as a profitable way to convert “stranded” sources of methane and natural gas (sources that are small, temporary, or not close to a pipeline) to liquids for further processing, the team reported.

The only known catalyst (industrial or biological) to convert methane to methanol under ambient conditions with high efficiency is the enzyme methane monooxygenase (MMO), which converts methane to methanol. The reaction can be carried out by methanotrophs that contain the enzyme, but this approach inevitably requires energy for upkeep and metabolism of the organisms. Instead, the team separated the enzymes from the organism and used the enzymes directly.

The team found that the isolated enzymes offer the promise of highly controlled reactions at ambient conditions with higher conversion efficiency and greater flexibility.

“Up to now, most industrial bioreactors are stirred tanks, which are inefficient for gas-liquid reactions,” said Joshuah Stolaroff, an environmental scientist on the team. “The concept of printing enzymes into a robust polymer structure opens the door for new kinds of reactors with much higher throughput and lower energy use.”

The team found that the 3-D-printed polymer could be reused over many cycles and used in higher concentrations than possible with the conventional approach of the enzyme dispersed in solution.

At this writing natural gas is cheap, really cheap, so much of the potential won’t be realized for some time. But the government has chosen natural gas to kill out coal use which will surely drive the price of natural gas higher. The next time the natural gas supply comes up short lets hope there are tanks of methanol waiting to fill in the shortfall.


1 Comment so far

  1. jp straley on June 21, 2016 7:21 AM

    One interesting source of methane is from anaerobic digestion of sewage. A sewer plant has dilute organics delivered from a city or other source, and generally the micro-organisms first concentrate it. This one of the working principles behind so-called “activated sludge”. With the fairly concentrated material, you can use anaerobic digestion to convert carbohydrates and other orgainics to methane, a well established technique. If the new technique discussed in this areticle is sufficiently robust (it must withstand presence of various dreck including H2S_, then you could make MeOH to go into all types of uses…cities could direct mix with gasoline (takes a bit of adaptation to use MeOH instead of EtOH, but still practical) instead of flaring. This also saves energy at the WWTP, since the enthalpy of the methane is exported instead of used aerobically to create more biomass.

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