New innovation in unpacking hydrogen and carbon from methane can contribute to cleaner energy and improve battery technology
Methane, a greenhouse gas, is an excellent source of hydrogen. Methane breaks down in very high temperatures and thus far all the methods of breaking its molecular structure has resulted in hydorgen and carbon monoxide or dioxide, ie. other greenhouse gases.
Professor Ulla Lassi, the head of Research Group of Applied Chemistry at the University of Oulu has been working on a transformative method in hydrogen extraction from natural gases. Lassi and her team have been able to develop new catalytic materials that can be used in so-called methane pyrolysis to break methane down into hydrogen and solid carbon, which can be then stored. The catalytic materials themselves originate in industrial waste which makes them cheap, recyclable and readily available in vast quantities.
Separating solid carbon from methane took Lassi herself by surprise, too.
”Sometimes in research it happens that the best things are discovered by accident,” Lassi says with a chuckle.
Lassi started her research by trying to develop means to produce as much hydrogen as possible, but when solid carbon emerged as a by-product of methane pyrolysis, her research took a sudden turn. Carbon is usually extracted from nature by mining and there are ways to create synthetic carbon. Whether by mining for carbon or making synthetic carbon, these ways of producing it take a toll on the environment, but extracting solid carbon from methane does not have this impediment. The energy effciency of the carbon produced in methane pyrolysis is also improved by the fact that with the research group's catalytic materials, the gas breaks down in temperatures that are hundreds of degrees lower than with previous methods.
Battery technology cannot rely on critical natural resources
There are many ways to utilise the carbon that's extracted through methane pyrolysis. Carbon is a key component in batteries and plays a major part in developing new battery technologies. These days batteries rely on limited metals such as lithium, cobolt and nickel which are also difficult to recycle. The demand for these battery metals is going to grow at an ever-increasing rate as we need more batteries for consumer electronics but also vehicles, and in storing wind and solar power. Lassi's research can be seen as speeding up the transition to green energy, because carbon can be used in batteries to increase their performance and improve their conductivity.
”If even one of the major components in batteries becomes more sustainable to produce, then you will take a big step towards more sustainable energy in general. In the future there will be more and more biomass materials in batteries,” says Lassi.
Collaboration between industry and academy can create sustainable solutions on a global scale
Lassi's research has not stayed inside the walls of academia, because a Kokkola-based company called Hycamite has begun producing hydrogen and carbon from methane using a method that's based on her and her team's work. Indeed, Lassi says there needs to be a strong connection between research and industry.
”We are a small nation and in my line of research, collaborating with industry is absolutely vital. This is why we can achieve more with fewer resources. Collaboration between universities and companies are incredibly fruitful because the research done with companies is fundamental research at its best. And companies gain new experts that have honed in on their needs as well as new solutions to their practical problems,” Lassi says.
As Lassi sees it, every researcher should at least have one foot in the door of industry and make their research with also this perspective in mind. This is the way to creating practical and efficient solutions to address the most important questions of our time, such as sustainable energy production.
”In a laboratory it is very common to come up with a functioning solution that nevertheless uses some incredibly rare and expensive material or creates significant amounts of waste, thereby making it impossible to use in an industrial process. It is critical to be able to create methods already at the research stage that are relevant to industry and can be scaled up to a massive, international scale,” Lassi says.