Natural gas can be found in abundance throughout the United States, and is often used for heating, cooking, and electrical power generation. Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, an energy-rich compound not widely used for transportation. Currently, there are no commercially viable biological approaches to convert methane into liquid fuel, and synthetic approaches are expensive and inefficient at small scales. To take advantage of the country’s remote natural gas resources, such as off-shore methane, new biological processes that use special microorganisms called “biocatalysts” are needed to transform methane into liquid fuel. These small-scale processes could provide an environment advantage since they would be carbon neutral or better relative to traditional fuels.
Project Innovation + Advantages:
Northwestern University and partners will leverage computational protein design to engineer and repurpose a natural catalyst to convert methane gas to liquid fuel. Current industrial processes to convert methane to liquid fuels are costly, or inefficient and wasteful. To address this, Northwestern University will alter natural catalysts to create versatile new protein catalysts that convert methane to methanol which can more easily integrate into fuel production pathways. Northwestern will also engineer an additional protein catalysts to couple, or join, two molecules of methane together, a process critical towards producing longer chain “hydrocarbons” similar to those found in gasoline. Northwestern University’s simplified catalysts will provide a better alternative to existing methane converting enzymes and can be incorporated into multiple types of processes.
If successful, Northwestern University’s synthetic catalysts could offer a way to inexpensively activate methane, a development that could provide an ideal process to make use of natural gas reserves in order to create liquid fuel.
An improved bioconversion process could create cost-competitive liquid fuels significantly reducing demand for foreign oil.
This technology would allow for utilization of small-scale remote natural gas resources or methane and carbon rich gas residues for fuel production reducing harmful emissions associated with conventional fuel technologies.
Expanding U.S. natural gas resources via bioconversion to liquid fuels could contribute tens of billions of dollars to the nation's economy while reducing or stabilizing transport fuel prices.