Scientists have designed a new, simple technique to turn methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, into another useful and transportable liquid component – methanol.

Greenhouse gases are a cause of major air pollution, and contribute to global warming. Methane is the second most abundant of these gases, and although it contributes less to global warming than carbon dioxide (CO₂), it is still a very powerful greenhouse gas.

In recent years, a growing number of studies has been dedicated to coming up with innovative methods to reduce the concentration of methane in the atmosphere.

Oil-extraction facilities, where huge amounts of gases flare up in the atmosphere, are part of the problem.

At these sites, an approach is to convert methane into methanol through high-pressure and high-temperature oxidation of the gas.

However, this remains technically challenging to do. Furthermore, it is only economically feasible at very large scales – and so the method has not been deployed at many sites. Thus, the methane released at oil wells continues to impact the environment and to contribute to global warming.

Methanol using water

In a study now published in the journal Science, researchers propose an alternative method to transform methane into methanol.

"Our idea is to convert methane directly into methanol, using water as an oxidant instead of oxygen like other studies have done before," first author Vitaly Sushkevich, from the Paul Scherrer Institute, told IBTimes UK.

"When you use oxygen, it leads to over-oxidation of methanol, and produces carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, which we cannot use. But water is a milder oxidant and allows you to obtain methanol and hydrogen from methane."

Methanol can then be easily stored and transported. It can be used as a component of fuel, or in the industrial production of plastic or resins, while hydrogen is increasingly used in refineries and in the production of fuels.

In this study, the scientists were able to show that their method works in the lab, converting methane into methanol with water molecules acting as a cheap and abundant source of the oxygen.

However, this is just a proof-of-concept study. More extensive research will be needed for this method to become industrially relevant and for scientists to succeed in transforming large amounts of methane into methanol.

"Our findings are good news, because we are able show that we can turn methane into methanol using water. But now, we need a real collaboration and a dialogue with the industry if we hope to one day roll-out this solution more widely at an industrial level", Sushkevich said.

Even then, the beneficial impacts for global warming may be limited.

"There are good reasons to support methanol production, especially in plastics and chemicals. I don't see much benefit for global warming, though. You might keep a little methane out of the air. But you'll produce more to start with, with most of it is used to generate electricity", said Rob Jackson, professor and chair of the Department of Earth System Science at the University of Stanford, who was not involved with the study, told IBTimes UK.