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Cooking with waste CO2

Speed read
  • Methane in natural gas is used for cooking but can be environmentally unfriendly
  • New method of creating methane consumes the pollutant carbon dioxide
  • This “methanation reactor” could change how we use methane

Natural gas is one of the most reliable sources of energy. It cooks your food, heats your home, and has a host of industrial uses, such as in the production of fertilizer and antifreeze. In fact, global consumption hit 3,630 billion cubic meters in 2016. While multiple chemical compounds are found in natural gas, methane makes up anywhere from 50% to 90% of this energy resource.

<strong>Multi-purpose methane</strong> has many uses, from cooking and heating fuel to the manufacture of bricks, cement, fertilizer, and plastics. It's also used to dry cereals and fruits.Methane may be collected from natural sources, but much of it is made through something called the Sabatier reaction. This method has worked well since Paul Sabatier won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for inventing it in 1912. However, the Sabatier reaction can also lead to the creation of carbon and uses large quantities of hydrogen, making it environmentally unfriendly.

Thankfully, someone is working on a solution. But Stefano Falcinelli of the University of Perugia (UNIPG) and his team didn’t want to just lower the intake of hydrogen – they also wanted to suck up the carbon dioxide that’s poisoning our planet.

Waste not, want not

With 80% of global energy needs coming from fossil fuels, the idea of using carbon dioxide (a waste byproduct of fossil fuel combustion) to create methane was compelling for Falcinelli. Working with Andrea Capriccioli of ENEA, Antonio Laganà of UNIPG, and PLC System S.r.l., Falcinelli created ProGeo. Despite its complexities, this “methanation reactor” operates much like a kitchen appliance.

<strong>The ProGeo reactor</strong> acts as an oven which cooks a combination of sand and a waste gas such as CO2 to produce methane. Courtesy Stefano Falcinelli.“ProGeo is an oven where you put in a metal powder, like sand, and a waste gas such as carbon dioxide,” Falcinelli explains. “If you heat the oven to 200°C, maintaining an hermetical seal, you can produce a very precious substance (methane) that can be used to produce energy as you need.”

More specifically, ProGeo uses the Grid-Enabled Molecular Simulator (GEMS) computer system to discover the most optimal reaction. Falcinelli and his team relied on GEMS and the Zacros Kinetic Monte Carlo software package to perform extended calculations and investigate the interplay of the molecular processes needed to create methane.

As it turns out, figuring out the chemical process wasn’t the hard part. According to Falcinelli, the toughest challenge was designing the oven. The team built the reactor chamber from scratch, struggling to optimize the fluid-dynamics of the reacting gasses with the interaction of the metal catalyst, until they were able to determine the best operative conditions in terms of temperature and internal pressure.

What the future holds

Falcinelli’s methanation reaction has ecological advantages over the Sabatier reaction due to its rejection of the use of hydrogen, but the University of Perugia researcher won’t stop there. He believes ProGeo could become a solid methane production solution that could be used the world over to create environmentally-friendly methane while also decreasing the production of carbon dioxide.

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere have negative environmental impacts, from global warming to ocean acidification. What if some of that excess C02 could be used to produce methane? Courtesy NOAA.

The team is also studying the possibility of creating methane without using the metal catalyzer described in the ProGeo methanation reaction. Falcinelli has yet to gather any experimental data on reaction yields for this research, but he hopes his work will lead to interesting discoveries.

“ProGeo could become a mainstream methane producing method (from CO2 conversion) if we will be able to produce the needed H2 reagent at a lower cost than the current method,” says Falcinelli. “We are working on developing a new type of electrolyzer, optimizing the yields/cost ratio to reduce the actual cost by about a factor of ten.”

Climate change is a global problem, and solutions that conserve finite resources while also reducing carbon dioxide levels are more appealing than ever. A carbon-neutral civilization may be a distant dream, but thanks to scientists like Falcinelli it may be closer than we think.

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