Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Methane Bonanza: What To Do With All the Gas?

A wealth of unconventional methane is exploding onto the energy scene, much to the dismay of dieoff doomers, Russian energy tsars, and carbon hysterics. But what is the world to do with all this methane -- which is difficult to transport, and cannot be easily used within the liquid fuels infrastructure?

The answer would seem to be to convert the gas into liquids, but what is the most economical way to do that? Liquified natural gas (LNG) is difficult and expensive to handle, Fischer-Tropsch gas to liquids (GTL) is likewise expensive and requires costly chemical plants (although microchannel FT architectures may alter the equation). What to do, what to do?

German researchers at Max Planck Institute for Carbon Research in Mulheim are trying to develop better ways of converting gaseous methane to liquid methanol -- which would open a world of economic possiblities.
Methanol is a useful starting material for many chemical syntheses, including fuels; it can also be added to conventional fuels to power fuel cell or used in combustion engines. Conventional processes for producing methanol from methane involve detours (synthesis gas), are complex and energy-intensive, and require high temperatures and pressures. By contrast, the enzyme methane monooxygenase does the job gently and efficiently. However, this is a very complex enzyme that cannot easily be produced and used in an artificial environment....
In contrast to time-consuming protein engineering, the present approach simply requires the addition of an appropriate chemically inert perfluoro fatty acid to the enzyme, thereby triggering a catalytically activating effect which originates from specific guest/host interactions in the binding pocket. A shift from an inactive low-spin state to a catalytically active high-spin state and a decrease in the effective volume of the binding pocket appear to be the crucial factors as shown by UV/Vis difference spectra as well as a theoretical analysis based on MD simulations and docking experiments.

The present approach not only allows methane to be oxidized with notable enzyme activity, but also opens the door for using perfluoro carboxylic acids, which can be expected to bind to most CPYs, to influence the catalytic profile of monooxygenases as catalysts in the functionalization of more complex organic compounds, including the control of regio- and stereoselectivity.
—Zilly et al.
The dynamics of enzymes and how they work their semi-selective magic, is an area of frantic study. But as noted here recently, nanotechnological catalysts are likely to eventually take over for most biological enzymes, for high volume synthesis of potentially toxic chemicals such as hydrocarbons.

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