Researchers unveiled Thursday a cheaper, easier and cleaner means of producing liquid alcohol from natural gas, which can be converted to substitutes for oil-based fuels. The breakthrough, they said, has the potential to reset the nation’s energy markets.

Chemists from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah and a unit of the California-based Scripps Research Institute discovered that the so-called “main group” metals, such as lead and thallium, can trigger conversion of natural gas to liquid alcohol, according to a paper published in the March 14 issue of the journal Science.

What is also significant is that the conversions of the gas can be done at relatively low temperatures (180 degrees Celsius), compared to the  heat usually needed (1,400-1,600 degrees Celsius) with traditional transitional metals.

In a summary from BYU, Yale chemistry professor Robert Crabtree called the research “a highly novel piece of work, opening the way to upgrading of natural gas to useful chemicals with simple materials and moderate conditions.”

Daniel Ess, a BYU chemistry professor and one of the authors of the research report, said the potential benefits go beyond the production of fuels. It also includes the production of methanol that can be used in manufacturing.

The research cuts out a standard step in breaking apart raw natural gas that originally involves breaking the gas into three parts — methane, ethane and propane — before turning out useful fuels and chemicals.

“It turns out that we can directly use the mixture of what comes out of natural gas and convert all three of them together,” Ess said in a summary published by BYU. “Whether you use methanol to burn as a fuel or as a chemical commodity for products, this process cuts down energy usage.”

There is the possibility that this breakthrough could lead to natural gas products displacing oil products at some time in the future, with a simplified process, according to a report by Reuters, which noted the versatility of natural gas, from which most of the same products can be derived as are currently made from petroleum. Currently, the cost of converting various fuels and chemicals from natural gas is much higher than using petroleum.

In recent years, methane-to-liquids research has been advancing at various universities. In 2009 University of Washington chemistry professor Karen Goldberg reported advances in converting methane to methanol or other liquids that could be more easily transported than gas (see Daily GPI, Oct. 27, 2009).

As reported at that time, the advances could promote the substitution of methane — the primary component of natural gas — for petroleum-based fuels, according to another article in Science.