We Can Use Natural Gas for Energy Without Burning It - Here's How

Two new methods for harnessing energy from methane result in little to no carbon emissions, because the carbon is captured rather than released. (Image credit: Taylor Bennett/Flickr)

Natural gas is an attractive energy source, because it burns cleaner than coal and costs much less. But burning methane still releases carbon into the atmosphere, and if we want to further reduce emissions, even natural gas has its limitations. Or maybe not. Two new methods indicate methane can be converted to energy with little to no carbon emission by taking burning out of the equation.

They detail efficient methods of converting methane to hydrogen in ways that let us capture much or all of the carbon left over. The hydrogen could then be burned or converted to electricity in a fuel cell—including mobile fuel cells that power cars. The supply obtained from methane could also be integrated with hydrogen from other sources.

The first method involves proton conduction, and the second makes use of reactions on liquid metal - but neither are quite as energy efficient as burning it.

Both of these approaches obviously are going to limit the amount of energy available from methane compared to simply burning it, since they require high temperatures to get the reactions to work. But there will almost certainly come a time where the carbon emissions of natural gas are considered a problem, and they do seem to provide a solution to that, allowing us to continue to use methane long after we try to phase out fossil fuels.

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