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The University of Amsterdam's Van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS) has received funding of the Dutch science foundation NWO to develop new chemistry for the utilization of methane. HIMS chemists will explore the chemical activation and functionalisation of methane, aiming at using this abundantly available gas for the synthesis of valuable chemicals. This will reduce CO2 emissions and will also pave the way for the use of biogas as a chemical resource.

Methane, the smallest of the hydrocarbons, is the main component of natural gas. It is widely available at an affordable cost. Hence, it is used on a large scale for the generation of electricity and hydrogen. However, these practises inevitably lead to an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. It is therefore of interest to find alternative uses for methane utilizing the material rather than the energy content of methane.

Methane molecule sculpture
Sculpture of a methane molecule by artist Marc Ruygrok in celebration of the discovery of natural gas in Groningen, the Netherlands, in 1959. Image: Detlef Schobert / Flickr.

There is no readily applicable chemistry established to convert methane directly into valuable chemicals. The problem lies in its inert character, posing quite a few challenges for synthetic chemists. Methane is non-polar, its C–H bonds are not easily polarized, and it has both a high ionization potential and low proton affinity. As a result, methane activation generally requires harsh reaction conditions. This frustrates controlled methane activation aimed at obtaining chemical species that are more reactive than methane itself. Therefore, direct conversion of methane remains a grand challenge in chemistry

Novel chemistry

The HIMS team will explore new methods for the activation and functionalization of the C–H bonds of methane. It builds upon a recent discovery in the HIMS group of associate professor Chris Slootweg.

Associate professor Chris Slootweg. Image: HIMS.

In a previous project, it was found that combinations of Lewis acids and bases form a special kind of charge-transfer complexes. These complexes are susceptible to photo-induced single-electron transfer, thus enabling the formation of radical ion pairs that can be the starting point for novel synthetic protocols.

In the project, that has been awarded funding from the LIFT (Launchpad for Innovative Technology) scheme of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO, the researchers aim to create new families of long-lived radical ion pairs that allow further intermolecular radical chemistry. Furthermore, to reduce the dependence of this synthetic chemistry on noble, scarce and toxic elements, the researchers aim at developing systems based on abundant and benign main-group elements.

With their explorative research, the team hopes to provide viable procedures for converting methane into more value-added products. This will not only help to reduce the impact of methane on the environment. It will also promote the efficient use of methane as a sustainable carbon building block. Since methane can also be produced from sustainable resources, for instance employing fermentation (biogas), the research can also contribute to establishing future sustainable chemistry.