Turning methane into usable liquid fuel: Illinois Institute of Technology and Argonne to receive $2M for hybrid fuel cells

August 4, 2014

Researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) were awarded $2 million over the course of two years to fund studies on hybrid fuel cells from the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E).

ARPA-E, an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, was specially created to fund high-risk, high-reward energy research projects and was modeled after the similar defense agency, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Argonne was one of 13 projects aimed at developing new fuel cell technology as part of ARPA-E’s Reliable Electricity Based on Electrochemical Systems (REBELS) program.

The research seeks to create a fuel cell that would both produce electricity and convert methane gas to ethane or ethylene that could then be converted to a liquid fuel or valuable chemicals. These cells could use natural gas—which is mostly made up of methane—directly.

With the advent of shale gas drilling techniques, methane is fairly abundant and frequently produced as a byproduct in drilling operations. Unfortunately, it is often burned off because it is expensive to transport in gas form, and few natural gas pipelines exist. Finding a less expensive way to instead turn that methane into liquid fuel—such as the hybrid fuel cell promises—could reduce waste and provide energy.

In the fuel cell, researchers plan to add a catalyst that helps make the reaction more efficient, breaking methane up and recombining it into hydrogen—which is then consumed by the fuel cell—and ethylene. The hope is that combining the steps will make the reaction more efficient.

“The ethylene is just a first step, a placeholder for proof-of-concept,” said Argonne chemical engineer Ted Krause, who is heading the project. “The overall goal is to produce liquid fuel from methane.”

Adam Hock, an Argonne chemist and IIT chemistry professor added: “Increasing the selectivity of catalytic transformations, making more of what you want and less unwanted byproducts, is a critical part of transforming our energy infrastructure.”

The project will combine IIT expertise in catalyst development and Argonne expertise in catalysts, solid oxide fuel cells, and solid oxide proton conductors.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

Founded in 1890, Illinois Institute of Technology, located in the historic Bronzeville community on Chicago’s South Side, is a private, technology-focused, research university offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, science, architecture, business, design, human sciences, applied technology, and law. One of 22 institutions that comprise the Association of Independent Technological Universities (AITU), Illinois Tech offers exceptional preparation for professions that require technological sophistication, an innovative mindset, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Visit www.iit.edu.