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Energy: A Methane Economy

Natural gas has always been the bane of oil production.  The processes deep in the earth that create oil over millions of years tend to produce even more volatile gases than liquid oil.  These have typically been “flared”, or burned off to get rid of them, since they are difficult to transport or do anything with.

The value of this great resource is finally being tapped around the world, and with some new technologies there are processes in place which can make suitable fuels directly from natural gas.  These systems need development and refinement, which can only come from implementation.  That, and a bit more research in the lab can revolutionize gasoline – and open the market to a vital new source of supply.

Natural gas is primarily methane.  It’s not chemically all that different from oil, tar, or even the common plastics that we use.  The difference is only “molecular weight”, or the number of carbon atoms strung together in a chain with hydrogen dangling from the side.  Gasoline is primarily octane, or 8 carbons, diesel is about 10, and polyethylene plastic up to a hundred thousand.  Methane is one carbon by itself, not joined to any others.

Crude oil out of the ground is a mix of many different lengths of chain that has to be refined and “cracked” to produce shorter chains that can be pumped and burned easily.  The commonly used process for doing this is what made the father of the legendary Koch Brothers rich when he developed it in the late 1940s.  Oil refining is nothing more than taking the mixture of big molecules, cutting them apart and separating them.

Going the other direction, building up 8 carbons in a row from one, requires different technology.  One method, the Fischer-Tropsch Process, has been around for a long time.  It’s not very efficient and requires many expensive steps to implement, but the Nazis were forced to rely on it in WWII when their supplies of oil were cut off.  It has never been economical other than to a desperate dictatorship in the process of losing a war.

Research since that time has developed several catalysts for making octane or other chained carbons directly from methane.  Several big breakthroughs have taken place in the last 20 years using some intense chemistry.  The only by-product is hydrogen gas, which can be used for many things including direct electricity production.  Big oil companies have never really been all that interested in these processes, however, because they are in the business of taking oil and running it the other way.  They don’t build up carbon chains, they break them down.

Until now, that is.  Several processes have been developed that prove this new technology works in the field and is far more economical than the Fischer-Tropsch process.  Where the value of gasoline at the refinery is about $3.50 per gallon, the input of natural gas necessary as a raw material costs about $0.90 at current prices.  There is a lot of room for the cost of the process.

The reason methane, or natural gas, is so cheap is that it is very hard to capture and use.  Methane does not liquefy easily, requiring very high pressure.  This makes it hard to transport.  Development of a process for making longer chain liquid on a very small scale, perhaps right at the well head, would make it possible to capture a tremendous amount of natural gas that is now being wasted.

Natural gas itself is not without controversy, however.  The reason the US is awash in it lately is the development of a technology called “fracking”, or hydraulic fracture.  Rocks containing natural gas are literally smashed with pressure, releasing the gas the contained.  Many horror stories have been told when methane bubbles up into aquifers, contaminating drinking water, and literally creating flames in people’s kitchen sinks.

New regulations have gone into place requiring, among other things, that all methane be captured directly at the fracking site.  That could be very expensive and difficult – unless the methane is made into a transportable liquid.

There is more work to do to develop and refine the process for making methane directly into gasoline.  This is an ideal candidate for a government challenge grant written around specific economic goals that specify practical implementation.  But the technology is there.  It could easily make the US energy independent, given the tremendous amount of methane under our land.

Yet there is much more to it than an alternative source of fuel and strategic national interests.  Once we convert from an oil based infrastructure to a methane based one there are more interesting options that open up with natural, renewable sources of methane that can plug right into the same systems started up with natural gas.  That’s the topic next time.

16 thoughts on “Energy: A Methane Economy

  1. Very, very cool! But like always I have to ask why we don’t here about this in the lamestream media?

    • There’s only so much time in the day, what with all the Khardashian-based “news” to report. 🙂 Seriously, I don’t know why these things aren’t talked about. I look at it as an opportunity for myself. Thanks!

  2. I am stunned. There is no doubt that this would change everything all around the world let alone in the US. This has to be developed now with no delay! It looks like there are people with systems that work already and claim it pays for itself in 4 years according to the articles you linked to. That is just incredible! This is the investment that all that money on deposit with the Fed should be going into!
    Why doesn’t this just happen? What is wrong that good ideas like this don’t make it into use right away?

    • Good ideas take time to implement, that I am sure of. But this is something that would change the world, yes. It’s that important. And we should be all over it – if for no other reason than to make a big pile of money.
      I can’t answer any of your questions other than to surmise that most people with a lot of dough have little imagination and almost no connection to real technology development. There are a lot of people these daze who think that “tech” means “internet”, after all. Chemistry and engineering must go right past them.

  3. Very interesting but I think you should say more about fracking. Its not just the flaming tap water which makes for a good video. They put a lot of toxic chemicals into the ground water that cause terrible cancer. Perhaps the new regulations address this and that would be good. I think you should say more about this.

    • Sure. I’ll start with this piece in the NY Times on the topic by Joe Nocera:
      I have not found a good article yet on the new regulations, but my understanding is that some say they adequately cover the nasty chemicals used and others do not. I left it alone for now until I have a better answer. I do know that a lot of people believe that fracking can be done safely IF we regulate it appropriately – the horror stories come from a completely unregulated system.
      Also, it’s worth noting that something like 15% of our natural gas currently comes from fracking, although that is expected to increase dramatically.
      What I’m most interested in is capturing the tremendous amount of gas that is still “flared” around the world, estimated by the World Bank to be enough to power Germany and Italy combined.

      Click to access gerner.pdf

      Smaller units that could be brought directly to the well site that would condense methane into a transportable liquid would be the best way to capture that, and I think this remains the ultimate goal for this technology.

  4. I’ve heard talk about natural gas as a “bridge” to renewable energy before but you’re explaining it step by step. Thanks, this helps a lot. As long as it makes economic sense an alternative to oil is definitely a good thing. Government subsidies to ethanol and all that are not the way.

    • You guys keep getting ahead of me! 🙂 Yes, that is exactly what I am describing, although the fun parts are still coming. This is the crucial step that I think is often missing. I am highlighting 3 proven, available technologies this week and will sum them up next Monday – it’s all planned out. 🙂
      I do want to emphasize that I am also against ongoing subsidies, preferring instead to develop needed technologies that benefit the whole economy via “challenge grants” with very specific goals. I can’t emphasize that enough.

  5. Good luck getting this past Big Oil. Maybe we should worry about your safety just for writing this.

    • Sorry it took me so long to respond, but I was kidnapped. 🙂
      Seriously, they will try to feed a lot of crap into the debate, as they have done so far, but I don’t think it’ll get any worse than that. Yes, the whole “Drill, baby drill!” nonsense came from Kochs, et al, but I really don’t think they killed anyone. Or kidnapped them. 🙂

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  7. Historically, gas has been flared when the cost of capturing and transporting it has exceeded the expected returns. This is a classic, and very large scale and harmful, example of markets producing perverse outcomes. There is needed an international ban on gas release/flaring. Opponents would probably argue that this would contribute to oil price increases.

    As for fracking, the matter is really simple: Fracking has been exempted from the basic environmental laws: clean air act, clean water act, etc This insane state of affairs was created by, I think, the “Energy Policy Act of 2005..

    • Yes on all counts. The newest regulations in place on fracking seem to take care of at least the worst excesses, some of which were taking place even before 2005. They really gave the industry a bad name. It is important to note, however, that fracking is still used for only a small fraction of natural gas production – there are many sources.

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