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Converting natural gas to alcohols using MOFs

| By Scott Jenkins

Capturing natural gas from petroleum drilling wells is economically challenging, but would have positive environmental impacts because it would eliminate the need for flaring and could allow the hydrocarbons to be converted into useful chemicals. Now, research led by chemists at the University of California at Berkeley (), in partnership with scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Max Planck Institutes, Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University and several others, shows a potential way toward capturing value from natural gas that would otherwise be wasted. The technique uses metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) to convert methane and other components of natural gas into alcohols. The alcohols could be transported from wellheads as feedstock for other processes.

Using natural enzymatic oxygenation of carbon-hydrogen bonds as inspiration, the researchers developed MOFs whose reactive-site environments mimic that of an enzyme known as taurine alpha-ketoglutarate dioxygenase (TauD). Specifically, the MOF active sites react with O2 to form high-spin Fe(IV)=O species that can oxygenate C–H bonds to generate alcohols.

“The high porosity and rigid crystalline structure of the MOFs allows easy entry of hydrocarbon gas molecules, allowing them to interact with the iron sites, which have a geometry around the iron center similar to the active site of the natural TauD enzyme,” explains Jonas Börgel, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow and first author of a recent Science paper discussing the work. The iron centers can activate oxygen at near-ambient temperatures to perform the oxygenation reactions in similar ways to the enzyme, he adds.

The research team is now focusing on the engineering aspects of the conversion, trying to determine a flow-reactor design that would allow natural gas and a co-factor (a source for necessary electrons in the reaction) to catalytically convert methane and ethane to methanol and ethanol in a continuous process. Börgel said that if it proves efficient at producing alcohols with less energy input than current processes, it might also be useful in large-scale facilities.
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