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