In methane-eating bacteria, they promise to be the key to the fuels of the future. After years in which their mechanism of operation has remained mysterious, a group of Northwestern University has identified the precise point in which the enzyme responsible for the conversion of methane into ethanol enters into action.
It is a point where there is only one ion (that is, an atom that has sold or acquired one or more electrons) of copper. The discovery, published in the journal Science, could lead to the design of new catalysts, capable of converting methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) into methanol (used in fuels) that can be quickly reused, using the same mechanism as bacteria.
“The identity and structure of the metal ions responsible for catalysis have remained elusive for years, but we have made an important step forward in understanding how these bacteria work,” noted Amy Rosenzweig, co-author of the study.
Current industrial processes to trigger a methane-methanol reaction require very high pressures and extreme temperatures, which can exceed 1,300 degrees. With these bacteria, on the other hand, the reaction takes place at room temperature and is free. “If we could completely understand how these bacteria develop conversion under mild conditions, we could optimize our catalysis,” says another of the researchers, Matthew O. Ross.