Creating Catalysts to Reduce Energy Waste and Methane Pollution in the Gas and Oil Industries

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Pumpjacks may be a familiar site if you grew up in oil country, but things have changed a lot in the oil and gas industry. Image Source: Flickr User Barta IV, Photographer

As oil and gas industry technology advances, so do the means by which manufacturers work to preserve the environment; methane, a common byproduct of the oil and gas industry, needs to be tackled through a method with less environmental impact. Byproduct methane is often burned, which accounts for 25% of  the United States’ natural gas consumption.1 Chemical research has recently yielded a new catalyst for the conversion of methane. Modern lab software can help researchers investigate these reactions to further mitigate waste products or better manage them in both the gas and oil industries.

Dealing with Excess Gas

Methane can be a hazardous byproduct in the oil and gas industry, as it can build up during operations and pose a safety concern. It is odorless, colorless, extremely flammable and can be explosive when mixed with air. In it’s gaseous form, it may act as an asphyxiant by displacing oxygen, particularly in confined spaces; not something you want lingering in your workspace or around your workers.2 Methane stores and usage in your facility can be monitored through a comprehensive computer system to improve safety while workers work with and around this gas. In the oil and gas industry, it may make an appearance during a number of different processes:

That said, oil and gas processing is not the only source of methane:

  • It has a tendency to build up in landfills as it is a natural byproduct of decomposition
  • It is found in and around abandoned coal mines. Often, coal deposits will trap methane and release it over time.
  • Burning coal may also release methane
  • Wastewater treatment, and the byproducts it creates, can emit methane

Finally and perhaps most detrimentally, it is a very powerful greenhouse gas; one pound of methane traps ~21 times more heat in the atmosphere than a pound of carbon dioxide and remains in the atmosphere for 9-15 years. It does have many uses, though, should it be trapped and used in other processes. It can be used to produce electricity, as a component in natural gas and in the production of a number chemicals commonly used in labs, such as formaldehyde, hydrogen and ammonia. Innovative lab software that allows researchers to link data with context may expand potential applications of methane, but how might one process all of this waste methane?

Changing Catalysts for More Efficient Processing

Methane is a stable molecule and it takes an abundance of energy to break the hydrogen-carbon bonds to convert it, necessitating a catalyst. Previously, a nickel-based catalyst had been used within the industry to attempt to weaken these bonds to ease this process, but it has been expensive and not efficient enough for consideration as a gold standard in the industry. Through a combination of computer modelling with innovative lab software and on-going experimental work, researchers are proving that a low concentration of carbon within a nickel catalyst may be a vast improvement over previous methods.3

In a similar manner to how you can employ a portion of a crystal to seed another crystal, a small amount of carbon embedded within the catalyst can weaken the hydrogen-carbon bonds in the methane, allowing deconstruction at lower temperatures. The authors speak repeatedly about taking a “bottom-up” approach to this process. By using innovative computer software to analyze the basic properties and conducting theoretical calculations, it is possible to better assess the dynamics of reactions and tailor them.

Another group showed previous evidence that small Ni-carbide species are stable during methane steam reforming reaction in the presence of a Ni-YSZ (yttrium stabilized zirconia) catalyst, but the underlying mechanisms were poorly understood. With recent innovations in computer modelling and analysis, it became easier to view the whole process and picture what may actually be occurring.

By paying close attention to concentration and the form of the carbon component in this reactive process, researchers determined that the presence of interfacial carbide-like species or carbon species increases local oxidation state of the positively charged Ni cluster. This resulted in significant assistance in the initial cleavage in methane, but it must be performed at low concentration as an abundance of carbon tends to hinder catalytic activity. Additionally, researchers determined that an external positive electric field can further increase the oxidation state of Ni, which assists and speeds the overall process.

The authors are still in the process of completely experimentally proving this concept, but this is a great leap forward. There are many chemical reactions which could be approved upon by taking this “bottom-up” approach (as opposed to assessing catalytic activity from top down). This also opens the door for the way that manufacturers within the oil and gas industry look to mitigate potentially harmful exhausts from production. BIOVIA Chemicals R&D can support you through planning, execution and data analysis. You can create automated data workflows to streamline data analysis and employ modelling and simulation tools to augment your wet lab work, while maintaining your stores of raw material, in this case methane, safely and accurately. Please contact us today to learn more about how our software options can support the efforts of your lab.

  1. “Research advances energy savings for oil, gas industries,” February 27, 2017, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170227125159.htm
  2. “Methane,” November 2, 2016, https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=92
  3. “Catalytic Reaction Rates Controlled by Metal Oxidation State: C-H Bond Cleavage in Methane over Nickel-Based Catalysts,” February 27, 2017, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/anie.201611796/full