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article imageScientists develop an alternative to wasteful methane flaring

By Karen Graham     Aug 7, 2017 in Science
Methane is the primary component of natural gas and is considered a by-product of oil drilling. Methane is also a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the course of a century.
Satellite imagery is so accurate that methane flares in oil and gas fields can be seen from space. Su Ha, a Washington State University associate professor of chemical engineering and director of the O.H. Reaugh Laboratory for Oil and Gas Research, and Jean-Sabin McEwen, a WSU assistant professor of chemical engineering were looking at a satellite image showing electric lights and methane flaring in North Dakota's Bakken Formation.
McEwan noted the glowing mass of flares, as big as Minneapolis, was from oil and gas fields burning off methane, producing as much greenhouse gas in a year as 1 million cars. "It's a big problem because not only do you waste energy, but you produce CO2," said Ha. "So the question is: Is there something you can do better than that?"
Satellite imagery shows electric lights and methane flaring in North Dakota s Bakken Formation.
Satellite imagery shows electric lights and methane flaring in North Dakota's Bakken Formation.
NASA Earth Observatory
The two researchers teamed up to figure out a solution to the methane problem. Generally, petroleum companies flare-off the methane from drilling oil wells because it is not cost-effective to capture and pipe the gas to refineries. U.S. and Russian researchers in 2015 said the methane flares around the planet account for more than 3.5 percent of the world's natural gas consumption, and it is wasted.
The solution? A small, inexpensive reactor
The answer the two scientists came up with involves breaking down methane in the field using a small reactor that inexpensively breaks water and methane into carbon monoxide and hydrogen which can be used for energy and industrial products. They reported their discovery in the journal ACS Catalysis.
Usually, because methane is such a tightly bound molecule, it takes water and extreme temperatures (over 1,800 degrees F.) to break it apart. McEwen and Ha found that by using an inexpensive nickel catalyst in connection with an electrical field, they could use a much lower temperature to orient methane and water in a way that made them easier to break apart.
Jean-Sabin McEwen and  Su Ha
Jean-Sabin McEwen and Su Ha
Washington State University
“It’s like a combination lock,” said Ha. “When you apply the right combination, when you apply the electric field with the right strength and right direction, it’s like you are applying a combination to a lock and click, it opens.”
At the end of the process, you end up with CO2 and hydrogen, the ingredients for synthetic gas, or syngas. An even better use of the end products would be to attach the reactor to fuel cells to convert and store the energy as electricity. "The idea is to have something that is better suited to these remote areas than a large-scale reactor,” said McEwen.
More about Methane, flaring, Greenhouse Gas, Reactor, Electricity
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