A methane molecule sculpture in Groningen, Netherlands
A methane molecule sculpture in Groningen, Netherlands. (Credit: Flickr @ Detlef Schobert

Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) were awarded $2 million over the course of 2 years to fund studies on hybrid fuel cells from the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E).

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.

SEE ALSO: Exfoliating Method Makes Water-Splitting Catalysts More Efficient

The research seeks to create a fuel cell that would both produce electricity and convert methane 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.