The most unexpected breakthrough in the paper was that ordinary "main group" metals like thallium and lead can trigger the conversion of natural gas to liquid alcohol. The research teams saw in experiments that natural gas to alcohol conversion occurs at 180 degrees Celsius -- just a fraction of the heat needed with traditional "transition metal" catalysts (1400-1600 degrees Celsius). The BYU team was crucial in using theory to understand how and why this process works at low temperatures and under mild conditions.
"This is a highly novel piece of work that opens the way to upgrading of natural gas to useful chemicals with simple materials and moderate conditions," said Robert Crabtree, a chemistry professor at Yale who is familiar with the new study.
The discovery comes at a time when natural gas production is booming in America -- a trend that is expected to continue for the next 30 years. The new process actually cuts out one step of the process for fuel production. Ordinarily the three main parts of raw natural gas -- methane, ethane and propane -- are separated before they are turned into fuels or other useful chemicals.
"Hardly anybody actually tries to do reactions on a genuine mixture that you would get from natural gas," said Daniel Ess, a BYU chemistry professor and one of the study authors. "Turns out we can just directly use the mixture of what comes out of natural gas and convert all three of them together."
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