One of the by-products of petroleum extraction and refining is natural gas. The main component, methane [CH4], is often simply vented into the atmosphere or burned off as waste. The problem with these disposal methods, though, is that CH4 is about 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is. Researchers estimate that the amount of CH4 released into the atmosphere could be as high as 33% of worldwide petroleum production.
Since CH4 is, of course, a hydrocarbon, it can be burned as fuel in its natural gaseous state. Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL] have recently won a $4.8 million grant to investigate the conversion of methane into other liquid hydrocarbon fuels, specifically diesel and jet fuels.
NREL’s methods are not new, having used algae to manufacture biofuels for decades. “Here, we’ll be applying it to a brand new feedstock, natural gas, which is recognized as being critically important to the United States,” explained Phil Pienkos, a principal investigator on the methane-to-diesel project.
If methane can be converted to diesel or jet fuel efficiently, it could eliminate billions of tons of the potent greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, providing an additional fuel source as well. Petroleum extraction in the US is increasing, but we still rely on petroleum imports to meet demands. A more efficient utilization of everything that comes out of the ground, including gaseous CH4 emissions, could certainly help to reduce these imports as well.