Methane conversion to complement CO₂ research in the fight against climate change
Assistant Professor Alonso Rosas-Hernández is the first researcher to receive a Junior Group Leader grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation CO₂ Research Center (CORC), which is a four-year grant awarded for research that supplements ongoing research in the center. The project focuses on methane - another very potent greenhouse gas that we need to curb - and aims to develop novel hybrid catalysts to promote the electroconversion of methane to methanol to counteract methane accumulation in the atmosphere.
Efforts during the past three decades developing efficient and scalable technologies to sequester greenhouse gases and exploring beneficial uses for them have mainly focused on CO2 capture and conversion, whereas the removal and valorization of other greenhouse gases such as methane have been neglected.
Methane emissions caused by human activity represent, however, a daunting societal challenge that contributes massively to climate change, second only to CO2. Curbing methane emissions is critical because of their outsized impact on the climate. While methane levels in the atmosphere are 200 times lower than that of CO2, methane is approximately 80 times more potent at trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere during the first 20 years after its release. Methane has an atmospheric lifetime of 12 to 15 years, unlike CO2, which will remain in the atmosphere for centuries. For this reason, tackling methane emissions represents an important near-term opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change while humanity completes the herculean task of transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy.
This is, therefore, an important issue to address in science, which is why Assistant Professor Alonso Rosas-Hernández received CORC’s first Junior Group Leader grant to explore further.
“CORC has set out on the important mission to find novel solutions for dealing with CO2. I think, at the same time, we should also be looking at other types of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Methane, for instance, has contributed as much as 0.5 °C of warming since pre-industrial times, second only to CO2. So, it’s quite important that we also start looking at developing technologies to reduce methane emissions. That’s why I think this project is so important,” relates Alonso Rosas-Hernández.
The energy sector is one of the main sources of methane, accounting for around 40% of the global anthropogenic emissions, resulting from venting and leaks across the oil and natural gas supply chain. Additionally, gas flaring still persists in remotely located oil fields with limited infrastructure to store and transport gaseous methane, which leads to vast amounts of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere.
Conversion of methane to methanol: the holy grail in catalysis
The direct conversion of methane to methanol is a promising technology to counteract methane emissions and use this abundant energy resource more efficiently and with a small carbon footprint. The key is the production of an easy-handling liquid fuel that can be stored and transported using the current energy infrastructure, which represents an alternative to flaring and venting processes. Methanol has an essential role as a feedstock in the chemical industry, and there has been a growing interest in its potential use as an energy vector and a platform for synthetic fuels through the established methanol-to-olefins/hydrocarbons technology.
Nevertheless, methane’s lack of chemical reactivity has rendered this process virtually impossible for large-scale applications. Existing thermal catalysts suffer from harsh, energy-intensive reaction conditions and rapid loss in methanol selectivity with increasing methane conversion.
With the CORC Junior Group Leader grant, Alonso Rosas-Hernández and his group aim to develop novel hybrid catalytic architectures for highly selective and efficient electrochemical conversion of methane to methanol under ambient conditions.
“Even though researchers have investigated this transformation for more than 30 years, we have not found a scalable catalytic solution. The direct conversion of methane into methanol has remained the holy grail in catalysis all these years! In these four years, my main expectation is to show that electrocatalytic systems can drive methane-to-methanol conversion under ambient conditions, with the aim that in the short future we can have an industrial process running. But we need to start at the beginning. And we need to start now,” Alonso Rosas-Hernández explains.
Important experience from carbon dioxide conversion
So far in Alonso Rosas-Hernández’s career, he has been focusing on carbon dioxide conversion, but finds the opportunity to work in the field of methane exciting and also an important one:
“Now I really think it’s time to start looking at methane. And this grant allows me to start developing the catalysts we need to address this other challenge we have with methane emissions. I’m really excited to start in this field and to benefit from the lessons learned during the development of efficient catalytic systems in the CO2 field,” says Alonso Rosas-Hernández.
Executive director of Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center, Professor Alfred Spormann is also very excited to have Alonso Rosas-Hernández as the center’s first Junior Group Leader.
"I am thrilled to welcome Alonso to CORC as our first Junior Group Leader. Alonso's research on new chemistries for removing methane from the atmosphere expands the expertise of CORC into an important direction. Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas with a dynamic that is different from that of CO2, and Alonso's superb expertise and his exciting research plan close a gap in CORC,” says Alfred Spormann.
Group Leader grants with CORC
The Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center seeks to identify highly talented young scientists at the advanced postdoc or Assistant Professor level to conduct fundamental research that substantially complements ongoing research in CORC. Research should use chemical, biological, or a combination of both sciences to significantly advance CORC’s mission on mitigating greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4) at scale. Research should be innovative and highly competitive, and explore new, potentially high-risk, high-reward ideas.
About Dr. Alonso Rosas-Hernández