The University of Central Florida Gives Methane New Green Applications

Researchers at the University of Central Florida have developed three new methods that enable methane to be used in green energy production and to create high-performance materials that could be used for smart devices, biotechnology, solar cells, and more.

The first new technology enables the production of pure hydrogen from hydrocarbons like methane without releasing any carbon gas. They used visible light – such as a laser, lamp or solar source- and defect-engineered boron-rich photocatalysts for visible light-assisted capture and the conversion of the hydrocarbons. The technique could potentially lower the cost of catalysts, along with enabling more efficient use of solar energy for catalysis.

“That invention is actually a twofer,” UCF researcher Richard Blair stated. “You get green hydrogen, and you remove – not really sequester – methane. You’re processing methane into just hydrogen and pure carbon that can be used for things like batteries.”

Secondly, the team designed a method for producing carbon nanoscale and microscale structures with controlled dimensions. They used light and a defect-engineered photocatalyst to make patterned, well-defined nanoscale and microscale structures from numerous carbon sources, such as methane, ethane, propane, propene, and carbon monoxide. 

“It’s like having a carbon 3D printer instead of a polymer 3D printer,” co-investigator Laurene Tetard said. “If we have a tool like this, then maybe there are even some carbon scaffolding designs we can come up with that are impossible today.”

As the carbon structures they produced are small but well structured and can be arranged precisely – with precise sizes and patterns –  they have the potential for use in medical devices and new chemical sensors.

Their third innovation is a method that produces carbon from defect-engineered boron-nitride using visible light. As in the first technology for producing hydrogen, it produces carbon via a chemical cracking of hydrocarbons with energy supplied by visible light coupling with a metal-free catalyst, defect-engineered boron-nitride. The technique does not require significant energy, time, or special reagents or precursors that could leave impurities. Additionally, the end product consists of just carbon and some traces of boron and nitrogen, none of which are toxic to humans or the environment. This technique has potential for use in many applications, such as sensors or new components for nanoelectronics, energy storage, quantum devices, and green hydrogen production.