Look closely at the structural formulas above. The only difference between the two molecules is one oxygen (O) atom. The formula on the left represents methane, the main component of natural gas. The formula on the right represents methanol, a promising alternative to gasoline. It looks as though it would be easy to convert methane to methanol, given how similar their molecules are. There’s just one problem: getting that O into methanol.
Why It Matters
- Petroleum is used to make many products, including gasoline to run cars and trucks. Use of petroleum produces a lot of carbon dioxide and air pollution. Petroleum will also eventually run out.
- Methanol can be used like gasoline, but it burns cleaner and is biodegradable. Theoretically, methanol can be made from anything that is or ever was a plant. This includes methane gas from landfills and even carbon dioxide in the air.
- Most methanol is made from methane, but this process takes high heat and doesn’t yield much methanol. Scientists, including Dr. Elon Ison, are looking for a catalyst that will efficiently convert methane to methanol at a lower temperature. You can learn about Dr. Ison’s work by watching this video: http://www.nbclearn.com/chemistrynow/cuecard/54645
Can You Apply It?
Learn more about making and using methanol at the links below. Then answer the questions that follow.
- Dr. Elon Ison is a chemist in the growing research area of green chemistry. How does he define green chemistry?
- What is a catalyst?
- Why is a catalyst needed to convert methane to methanol?
- What elements is Dr. Ison using to make catalysts? Why is he using these elements?
- If methanol could be made from carbon dioxide, use of the methanol would be carbon neutral. Explain why.