Researchers discover catalyst for more efficient methanol production

March 4, 2014, 1:42 a.m.

Scientists from Stanford, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Technical University of Denmark have identified a new catalyst that converts hydrogen and carbon dioxide to methanol at lower pressures and with fewer carbon monoxide byproducts.

The typical methanol plant will turn natural gas and water into synthesis gas—carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen—or “syngas.” A catalyst made of copper, zinc and aluminum then converts the “syngas” into methanol, which has uses in plastics, adhesives, solvents and even fuels, in a high-pressure process.

Felix Studt, staff scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the paper’s lead author, both tested compounds in the lab and searched a computerized database for a promising new catalyst. Using a process called computational materials design, which tests the functionality of materials based on computer calculations, his research group identified nickel-gallium as one such compound.

Co-author Ib Chorkendoff’s research group at the Technical University of Denmark subsequently tested the compound, and found that the catalyst was able to produce methanol both at ordinary room pressure and also in greater quantities at higher temperatures. Nickel-gallium produces less carbon monoxide byproduct than other current alternatives.

In the future, the researchers hope to make the process even greener. Given gallium’s wide use in electronics, the catalyst also has the potential for industrial uses. Although some hurdles remain, the scientists told Science Codex that they ultimately hope to manufacture methanol on a large scale while using clean hydrogen, thus releasing no pollutants and remaining carbon neutral.

The research was published in the March 2 edition of “Nature Chemistry.”

Kylie Jue '17 was the Editor-in-Chief for Vol. 250. She first became involved with The Daily as a high school intern and now is a CS+English major at Stanford. A senior from Cupertino, California, she has also worked a CS 106 section leader. To contact Kylie, email her at kyliej ‘at’

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