Researchers at University of Central Florida are now converting methane into energy and useful materials. The advancement in methane utilization technology has happened due to the collaboration between Laurene Tetard, a nanotechnologist, and Richard Blair, a catalysis expert. Innovative methods were developed to use methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, for this purpose. This technique uses visible light and special catalysts to make hydrogen from methane without releasing carbon. The technology also allows for the creation of precise carbon structures at very small scales, which can be used in many valuable applications.
A pair of researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) has successfully devised innovative techniques for generating energy and materials from the harmful greenhouse gas, methane. The new innovation by UCF enables methane to be used in the production of green energy. This will further help in creating high-performance materials for biotechnology, smart devices, solar cells, and other devices. For the past decade, nanotechnologist Laurene Tetard and catalysis expert Richard Blair have been collaborating on research at UCF, resulting in a series of innovational inventions.
Laurene Tetard is also an associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Physics at UCF, along with a researcher with NanoScience Technology Center. Richard Blair is a research professor at the Florida Space Institute, UCF.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane has a 28 times greater impact on the Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide, another significant greenhouse gas, over a 100-year timeframe. Methane is able to trap more radiation, even though it has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. Significant contributors to the release of methane into the atmosphere consist of energy and industrial activities, agricultural practices, and the presence of landfills.
As experienced research collaborators, Tetard and Blair are well acquainted with the age-old saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Tetard said, “It took a while to get some really exciting results. In the beginning, a lot of the characterization that we tried to do was not working the way we wanted. We sat down to discuss puzzling observations so many times.”
However, they persisted relentlessly, and their unwavering determination ultimately rewarded them with new innovations. “Richard has a million different ideas on how to fix problems. “So eventually, we would find something that works,” Tetard added.
Introducing an Enhanced and Greener Approach to Hydrogen Production
The initial invention involves an innovative approach to generate hydrogen from hydrocarbons, like methane, while eliminating the release of carbon gas.
The innovation focuses on the utilization of visible light, such as lasers, lamps, or solar sources, and defect-engineered boron-rich photocatalysts. This approach showcases the remarkable capabilities of nanoscale materials, enabling the capture and conversion of hydrocarbons like methane with the assistance of visible light. Defect engineering involves the creation of materials with irregular structures.
Certain contaminants are commonly achieved when a reaction takes place on conventional catalysts at higher temperatures, like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or higher polyaromatic compounds. But hydrogen produced by UCF’s invention is free from these contaminants.
Also See: What is Hydrogenated Amorphous Silicon?
Thus, researchers convert methane into energy and useful materials that are free from impurities. Development has the potential to decrease the cost of catalysts utilized in energy production, enhance photocatalytic conversion in the visible range, and optimize the utilization of solar energy for catalysis. Possible applications of hydrogen in the market include high scale applications in capture and conversion of methane along with involvement in solar farms.
Richard Blair said, “That invention is actually a twofer. You get green hydrogen, and you remove — not really sequester — methane. You’re processing methane into just hydrogen and pure carbon that can be used for things like batteries.”
According to him, methane and water, along with high temperatures, were traditionally used in hydrogen production. But that process emits carbon dioxide along with producing hydrogen.
Blair added, “Our process takes a greenhouse gas, methane, and converts it into something that’s not a greenhouse gas and two things that are valuable products, hydrogen and carbon. And we’ve removed methane from the cycle.”
It was observed that the Exolith Lab at UCF successfully harnessed the power of sunlight to generate hydrogen from methane gas, all made possible by the implementation of a robust solar concentrator system. He suggests that countries without abundant sources of power could utilize the invention by using methane and sunlight. Methane is present in places like landfills, industrial and agricultural areas, and wastewater treatment sites, in addition to oil and natural gas systems.
Producing Carbon Nano or Microstructures without Contamination
Tetard and Blair’s technology creates precise carbon structures at the nanoscale and microscale using light and a defect-engineered photocatalyst. Some of the examples are carbon monoxide, ethane, methane, propane, and propene.
Laurene Tetard said, “It’s like having a carbon 3D printer instead of a polymer 3D printer. If we have a tool like this, then maybe there are even some carbon scaffolding designs we can come up with that are impossible today. The dream is to make high-performance carbon materials from methane, which is currently not done very well right now.”
“So, this invention would be a way to make such materials from methane in a sustainable manner on a large industrial scale,” Blair added.
The produced carbon structures are small and well-structured, allowing for precise arrangement with accurate sizes and patterns. Blair said, “Now you’re talking high-dollar applications, perhaps for medical devices or new chemical sensors. This becomes a platform for developing all sorts of products. The application is only limited by imagination.”
Researchers convert methane into energy and useful materials, but there are still some adjustments required. Design methods have the potential to incorporate a range of lasers or solar illumination, as the growth process can be adjusted at different wavelengths and Tetard’s lab is trying to reduce the size. Tetard said, “We’re trying to think of a way to learn from the process and see how we could make it work at even the smaller scales — control the light in a tiny volume.”
“Right now, the size of the structures is microscale because the light focal volume we create is microsize.” So, if we can control the light in a tiny volume, maybe we can grow nano-sized objects for patterned nanostructures a thousand times smaller. That’s something we’re thinking of implementing in the future. And then, if that becomes possible, there are many things we can do with that,” Tetard added.