While electric cars gain momentum by gradually replacing gas intake appliances, electrifying larger vehicles such as trucks and long-haul aircraft it turns out difficult challenge.

We need more time to make the technology work and, in the meantime, a step of fuel between petrol and electric batteries. Here comes natural gas.

Containing methane as a major component, natural gas is an intriguing alternative to conventional fuel. It is abundant, has a distribution network, a high ratio of hydrogen to carbon and in turn moderate carbon emissions compared to gasoline.

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Keep in mind that natural gas is still a fossil fuel, which means that it is also harmful to the environment, but this is the lesser of the two evils on our path to electrification. So why don’t we use it on a large scale anymore?

Natural gas storage is a difficult business

Storage is a huge challenge and hinders the uptake of natural gas. This is because it must be stored under very high pressure – about 700 times atmospheric pressure – which requires complex and expensive tanks.

To make methane usable, scientists had to figure out the best way to both store it at a lower pressure and turn it to the level required by the vehicle’s engine. This figure, friends, is between five and 80 times atmospheric pressure.

So, what is the new solution to the problem of natural gas storage?

A research team from the University of Michigan, led by chemistry professor Adam Matzger, found that synthetic metal-organic frames (MOFs) represent untapped potential for methane storage.

MOFs are solid, porous structures composed of metals bound to organic ligands. Using computational screening, the team scanned nearly one million MOFs from 21 different databases for potential matches with the correct characteristics.

They found that three specific MOFs work well with methane, mainly because they contain small pores that can attract gas molecules. Materials can store methane through a process called adsorption, in which molecules of the substance adhere to the surface of the material, making low-pressure storage possible.

With this technique, the movement of natural gas vehicles becomes much more feasible. A fuel storage chamber complete with adsorbent MOF eliminates the need for expensive tank designs, as the material can store gas at low pressure.

“What sets this study apart is that we set a record for methane storage,” Matzger told News from the University of Michigan. “These MOFs are better than any other methane storage material previously identified, and this helps us understand whether we are approaching a practical system.”

If other scientists can build on Matzger’s research and create a scalable way for vehicles to store and use natural gas, there could be indescribable benefits. Of course, the ultimate goal is full electrification, but we are still a long way from battery-powered commercial aircraft – and natural gas may be the perfect stop before we get there.

You can find the full study here.


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