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U of Central Florida partners with energy start-up to capture and convert methane into low-carbon methanol

The University of Central Florida is partnering with a start-up that’s working to convert stranded gas methane — a common byproduct of oil production with a significant carbon footprint — into methanol use in low-carbon fuels and other materials.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is much more potent than carbon dioxide. While it doesn’t remain in the atmosphere as long as CO2, it is 84 times more potent at trapping heat over a 20-year time horizon, according to the sixth annual assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change. And in 2021, methane emissions rose to record levels for the second year in a row.

To address the methane problem and its climate impact, UCF’s Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) has partnered with start-up M2X Energy, which has developed a technology to capture methane from gas flare sites and convert it to liquid methanol, which can then be transported.

The start-up launched in 2020 and garnered early funding from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a  Bill Gates-founded firm that helps accelerate innovations that support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

One-third of the methane emissions caused by human activity derive from the fossil fuel industry, and a significant contributor of leaking methane into the atmosphere is gas flaring — the process of burning and disposing stranded natural gas at oil wells. With more than 16,000 flare gas sites globally, the associated greenhouse gas emissions equal that of all air travel.

While the flare gas problem has been around for as long as there has been oil and gas production, and some alternatives are available, M2X Energy is bringing a first-of-a-kind, modular, transportable and scalable offering to market. Informally known as the “plant-on-wheels,” the company has designed a unit that can travel to a well site and convert the gas that would otherwise be flared into methanol. The methanol is then transported to end users by tanker trucks.

In their partnership, M2X and FSEC are working together to better understand and optimize the chemical processes in M2X’s modular methanol plants.

“One of the biggest challenges is making a chemical plant that can be small and still be profitable — most chemical plants are huge facilities to take advantage of economies of scale,” says Paul Yelvington, chief science officer of M2X. “Going small is commercially and technically challenging, but that’s what is required to process wellgas and stop flaring.”

Once converted, methanol liquid can be used to make economically viable products such as low-carbon fuels, engineered lumber, plastics, and synthetic fibers, and it can even be used as a hydrogen carrier. A unique feature of M2X’s process is that it repurposes an automotive engine as a low-cost chemical reactor.

“The partnership has both FSEC and M2X researchers working together, side-by-side in the same laboratory as a team to reduce emissions from stranded natural gas and make a useful product, methanol,” says Jim Fenton, director of FSEC.

Nazim Muradov, the principal investigator of the project, says FSEC researchers bring to the table expertise in catalysis research, fuel reforming technology and products analysis.

“Thanks to the fruitful collaboration between FSEC researchers and M2X engineers, the project has successfully progressed to its current second phase of the technological development and has a good outlook to a prototype demonstration and introduction to the market.”

M2X’s first pilot unit, which consumes approximately 85,000 cubic feet of flare gas per day and produces 5,000 barrels of methanol per year, will be ready for field demonstration in the second quarter of 2023, and the first commercial units are expected to be available for deployment in 2024.

Source: UCF Today

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week