Researchers develop alternative to wasteful methane flaring

August 1, 2017, Washington State University
Satellite imagery shows electric lights and methane flaring in North Dakota's Bakken Formation. Washington State University engineers have built a reactor that can convert methane into more benign, easily used forms. Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory

Jean-Sabin McEwen knocks out a web search for "North Dakota," "night sky" and "flaring," and quickly finds a picture from space showing a glowing cluster bigger than Minneapolis. It's from oil and gas fields burning off methane, producing as much greenhouse gas in a year as 1 million cars.

"It's a big problem because not only do you waste energy, but you produce CO2," says Su Ha, a Washington State University associate professor of chemical engineering and director of the O.H. Reaugh Laboratory for Oil and Gas Research. "So the question is: Is there something you can do better than that?"

Ha and McEwen, a WSU assistant professor of chemical engineering, say they have a solution: a small reactor that inexpensively breaks water and methane into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which can be used for energy and industrial products. They report their discovery in the journal ACS Catalysis.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a frequent byproduct of oil drilling. It is also a 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the course of a century.

Piping it from is expensive, so energy companies burn off about one-third of the gas they produce in bright flares that can be seen from space. U.S. and Russian researchers in 2015 said flares around the planet accounted for 3.5 percent of the world's natural gas consumption.

McEwen and Ha's solution involves breaking down the methane in the field.

Ordinarily, methane is such a tightly bonded molecule that breaking it apart requires a lot of water and temperatures of about more than 1,800 F. But McEwen and Ha found that they could use much lower operating temperatures and an inexpensive nickel catalyst in the presence of an electrical field to orient and water in a way that makes them easier to break apart.

"It's like a combination lock," said Ha. "When you apply the right combination, when you apply the electric field with the right strength and right direction, it's like you are applying a combination to a lock and click, it opens."

At the end of the process, the researchers end up with and hydrogen, the ingredients of syngas, or synthetic gas. The product can be used to make gasoline, or the reactor could be attached to fuel cells that convert and store the energy as electricity.

"The idea is to have something that is better suited to these remote areas than a large-scale reactor," said McEwen.

Explore further: WSU research advances energy savings for oil, gas industries

More information: Fanglin Che et al, Reducing Reaction Temperature, Steam Requirements, and Coke Formation During Methane Steam Reforming Using Electric Fields: A Microkinetic Modeling and Experimental Study, ACS Catalysis (2017). DOI: 10.1021/acscatal.7b01587

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5 / 5 (4) Aug 01, 2017
But it's still not answering the fundamental reason why the gas is flared.

So you make hydrogen out of methane - so what? The logistics problem still remains. In fact the original methane is far more easier to transport than a mixture of CO and H2.

The product can be used to make gasoline

Which then can't be put in the oil pipeline, and so it requires its own logistics just like the methane did - and we're back to the original problem.

or the reactor could be attached to fuel cells that convert and store the energy as electricity.

Fuel cells don't "store energy as electricity", they make power which has to be transmitted out, and you could just burn the methane in a turbine or a fuel cell in the first place. No need to make hydrogen out of it.

Why isn't it done? Again because it's not worth the cost.
5 / 5 (5) Aug 01, 2017

I am one of the researchers who worked on this project and I agree with you completely. If you read our original paper, we do not connect this work to methane flares or anything else discussed in this (and other) articles on the work. We simply observed that an electric field can be used to decrease reaction temperatures, prevent coking, and possibly lower the required steam-to-methane ratios used in a lab-scale methane steam reforming reactor. Aside from this, what makes the work interesting is that we were able to get good agreement between the actual reactor and models of the system despite its complexity.

I was not present nor was I consulted in the interviews from which this (and other) articles on the work were written. I do not know how they arrived at the conclusion that a new technology for remote gas fields was developed. I can only guess that the PIs were using it as an example of where it might eventually be used.

Thanks for your excellent comment.
not rated yet Aug 01, 2017
The only impact I can see on field gas is if this process increases the demand for natural gas and thus its price. Then companies would be more likely to trap and pipe it.
not rated yet Aug 02, 2017
I look at the world map of CO emissions and wonder why the area of Africa below OKLO in the Congo and upper Angola should be the world's hot spot for CO emissions. They may be mining coltan but why the CO? Energy plants shouldn't produce this much CO so perhaps this is from gas flaring. The mining encounters gas pockets and the since the gas is interfering with the mining, they just flare it to get rid of it.
not rated yet Aug 02, 2017
I look at the world map of CO emissions and wonder why the area of Africa below OKLO in the Congo and upper Angola should be the world's hot spot for CO emissions.

Because that's Cabinda, an extremely oil rich region at the corner of the Republic(s) of Congo and Angola.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 02, 2017
JakeG thanks for your valuable clarification. THAT EXPLAINS A LOT about other articles we read here. The green movement is constantly shooting itself in the foot by making unrealistic claims.

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