Chinese scientists invent new catalysts to tame methane as rocket fuel

Methane, the most difficult "stubborn molecule" in organic chemistry. Recently, the team of Zuo Zhiwei from the School of Material Science and Technology at Shanghai University of Science and Technology solved this problem. They found a low-cost, high-efficiency catalyst combination that can achieve methane conversion at room temperature. This provides a new plan for the conversion of methane into rocket-propellant fuel and other high-value-added chemical products, and provides new ideas for the efficient use of unique rare earth metal resources in China. Related research results have been published in the international academic journal Science.

Schematic diagram of photocatalytic cerium-catalyzed functionalization reaction of methane carbon-hydrogen bonds. Photo courtesy of Shanghai University of Science and Technology

With the continuous improvement of proven reserves and extraction, natural gas has gradually become one of the important natural resources with great economic value. If direct chemical conversion of natural gas can be carried out, not only can high value-added utilization of natural gas be realized, but also the high cost and pollution caused by natural gas transportation can be avoided. However, direct conversion of natural gas is not easy.

The main compound in natural gas is methane, which is the most difficult molecule to be converted in organic chemistry. Scientists have never found a low-cost, high-efficiency conversion, mild reaction conditions conversion method. It is understood that the current high-efficiency catalyst for the direct conversion of methane requires the use of rare and expensive precious metals such as platinum and palladium, and the reaction conditions also need to be high temperature, which is far from the requirements of the industry to expect the direct conversion of methane with both scale and economy.

Group photo of the research team (from left): Hu Anhua (co-first author), Zuo Zhiwei (corresponding author), Pan Hui (second author), Guo Jingjing (co-first author)

After 2 years of preliminary work accumulation, 148 days of sprinting, 2202 attempts and optimization, the Zuo Zhiwei team finally found a highly efficient catalyst combination-"cerium-based catalyst + alcohol catalyst", that is, at room temperature, in trichloroethanol and rare earth Under the cooperative catalysis of metal cerium, methane conversion is completed.

Zuo Zhiwei introduced that the biggest advantage of this catalyst combination is to fully pay attention to the economy of the whole reaction process. First, the reaction conditions only need room temperature without heating or condensation; second, trichloroethanol is a common chemical raw material, which is very convenient to obtain as a catalyst; third, cerium accounts for nearly 50% of China's rare earth resources, and trichloride The price of cerium is about 18,000 yuan per ton, which is equivalent to one ten thousandth of the price of traditional platinum, palladium and other precious metal catalysts.

Experts in the industry believe that the team has found a new method of catalyzing "stubborn molecule" methane through sophisticated chemical design, which provides solutions for making full use of methane, a rich natural resource. It is used in industries such as medicine, agricultural chemicals and fine chemicals. Has broad application prospects.

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