27 March 2000

University of Queensland researchers have invented a way of converting unwanted Greenhouse gases into a potentially valuable fuel.

They have devised a catalyst for small-scale production of methanol, which is being touted as the fuel source of the 21st century.

The environmentally friendly project aims to convert unwanted Greenhouse gases into methanol, a valuable chemical feedstock/solvent for manufacturing formaldehyde, acetic acid and dimethyl ether. It is also an important fuel in its own right.

Associate Professors Max Lu and Victor Rudolph of the Chemical Engineering Department said that methanol was potentially the preferred fuel for fuel cells, which were likely to provide the power for motor vehicle engines supporting transportation, in the not-too-distant future.

"Producing methanol from natural gas is a well developed technology for large scale plants. However, these need big resources over a long term, like natural gas fields, to justify the very big capital investments in these huge plants (typically billions of dollars)," Dr Rudolph said.

"The UQ project is developing an alternative technology that can easily be applied on the small scale, to limited and geographically dispersed methane resources. It foresees converting the methane in small, integrated and self-contained methanol plants, built into containers that can be easily transported to remote resources, with minimal infrastructure support."

Dr Lu said that very large quantities of methane - often associated with carbon dioxide gas - each year were lost to the atmosphere, for example from coal mining operations, or were inefficiently used to generate power.

"This represents both a lost energy resource and also makes major contributions to Greenhouse gas buildup. The main reason these emissions occur is that individually they are of a relatively small scale, and they are geographically quite dispersed, which makes it economically unattractive to capture and use them. Of course, when summed up, all these small contributions become massive," he said.

Dr Lu said his research team had developed a new catalyst which synthesises gas from methane and carbon dioxide. The second step, which converted the synthesised gas into methanol, uses well-established technology. "Another new aspect is that we hope to integrate the synthesis gas and the methanol producing reactors, so that they exchange energy with each other and are very compact," he said.

The project recently received a $5000 first instalment of a $100,000 allocation from the Queensland Sustainable Innovation Fund. Over the next 12 months, the researchers will optimize the catalyst for the first stage of reaction, prove its longevity over extended laboratory trials, and then build a small demonstration plant using the technology to turn landfill gas into methanol.

Media: Further information, Associate Professor Victor Rudolph, telephone 07 3365 4171 or Associate Professor Max Lu, telephone 07 3365 3735.