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EERC working with Fuel Cell Energy on $3.5M ARPA-E project for electrochemical cell to convert natural gas to methanol

The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) is working with FuelCell Energy, Inc., an integrated stationary fuel cell manufacturer, to develop a durable, low-cost, and high-performance electrochemical cell to convert natural gas and other methane-rich gas into methanol, a major chemical commodity with worldwide applications in the production of liquid fuels, solvents, resins, and polymers.

The US Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) awarded $3,500,000 to the project, led by Fuel Cell Energy, as part of its REBELS (Reliable Electricity Based on ELectrochemical Systems) program. (Earlier post.) The project is directed at developing an intermediate-temperature fuel cell that would directly convert methane to methanol and other liquid fuels using advanced metal catalysts.

Existing fuel cell technologies typically convert chemical energy from hydrogen into electricity during a chemical reaction with oxygen or some other agent. FuelCell Energy’s cell would create liquid fuel from natural gas.

The advanced catalysts are optimized to improve the yield and selectivity of methane-to-methanol reactions; this efficiency provides the ability to run a fuel cell on methane instead of hydrogen.

In addition, FuelCell Energy will utilize a new reactive spray deposition technique that can be employed to manufacture their fuel cell in a continuous process. The combination of these advanced catalysts and advanced manufacturing techniques may reduce overall system-level costs.

The cost-competitiveness of natural gas could be increased significantly by converting it to liquids, since liquid hydrocarbons, such as methanol, have up to ten times the value of natural gas on an energy basis. The ability to monetize natural gas in cost-effective smaller-scale plants could be a value-added prospect in various industries.

Other partners in the project are MIT, the University of Connecticut, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The EERC’s portion of the project is being funded through matching funds from the North Dakota Department of Commerce’s Research ND Program. The Research ND award was a first for the EERC.

The electrochemical gas-to-liquid technology concept could lead to a modular, efficient, and cost-effective solution deployed in both large-scale industrial plants and in situations where natural gas is available in smaller quantities. Our role in this project is to help improve the performance and economics of an anode catalyst, a critical component of the electrochemical gas-to-liquid technology.

—Ted Aulich, Project Manager and EERC Senior Research Manager



"..up to ten times the value of natural gas on an energy basis."

It would be convenient to turn natural gas to methanol at the fueling station to power cars and fuel cell vehicles.



I think they are also shooting at decreasing flaring, which still happens in vast amounts.

If it is turned into methanol it is much more readily transportable by truck from the well head.


Can someone break down how this might work?

Is it CH4 plus O2 = CH3OH and does it take or give energy or something else?


If I have understood this correctly, the bottom part of this link shows that the reaction is exothermic, ie produces energy:


Rigs can be powered by the methane in the field. Methane is burned in turbines creating heat and electricity, or use SOFCs. Up until now, the drillers have been too short sighted to do so.



I think it's both. The first part of the process - the catalytic reforming of CH4 and steam takes an energy input (producing steam certainly would) but the last part, the synthesis of methanol, gives off extra heat which can be used to at the very least reduce the needs of the first part.

And I believe the "..up to ten times the value of natural gas on an energy basis" statement refers to the monetary value versus the energy cost. In short: People will pay more for methanol than methane.

But don't quote me.


There was a partial-oxidation process for the direct conversion of CH4 to MeOH using, I believe, SO2/SO3 as the oxidant.  It's a downhill, one-step reaction.  It wouldn't surprise me one bit if it's possible to do the same with a catalyst taking oxygen passing through a fuel-cell as ions instead.

There's a lot of stranded gas at remote oil wells where the liquids are trucked out.  Converting to methanol allows the natural gas to be taken out rather than flared.


"FuelCell Energy high-temperature carbonate fuel cell systems internally reform readily available fuels such as natural gas and renewable biogas within the fuel cell itself."

They reform natural gas to synthesis gas internally, then synthesis gas can used to catalytically synthesize methanol. This should be a modular scalable unit that can convert at point of distribution, so transit trucks are not necessary. Just pipe the natural gas to the station and put the methanol in the vehicles.

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