• The oil and gas industry deploys gas flares to prevent methane from reaching the atmosphere, but this method still causes significant, harmful emissions.
• M2X is working on a better, less-expensive way to convert methane into methanol, which can be used to produce commodities like low-carbon plastic, engineered lumber, and synthetic fibers.
• M2X is prototyping transportable gas-to-methanol units that can fit on a tractor trailer for quick deployment, with the goal of eliminating gas flares and progressing 2050 net-zero emissions targets.
It’s no secret that fossil-fuel production causes an outsized share of harmful emissions. In 2021 alone, oil and gas development released 240 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. The common practice of gas flaring burns excess natural gas associated with oil extraction—mostly because there isn’t any infrastructure in place to bring that gas to market.
The oil and gas industry is also responsible for a quarter of methane emissions, which make up 20% of total global emissions (PDF, p. 1). There are 16,000 gas flare sites around the world, where excess methane is combusted into CO2. Methane is approximately 30 times more harmful than CO2, so combusting it before it reaches the atmosphere does lessen the greenhouse gas (GHG) effect.
The problem is that “gas flares are not 100% efficient,” says Diana Alcala, vice president of business development at M2X Energy, a start-up working to convert wasted methane gas into methanol for producing commodities like low-carbon plastic, engineered lumber, and synthetic fibers. New data shows that only roughly 92% of methane combusts in gas flaring, whereas it was previously thought to be 98% effective. “That might seem like a small difference, but the result on GHG emissions is several times worse,” Alcala says.
Investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures finances, launches, and scales companies that reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. It founded M2X Energy in 2020 with the goal of making waste methane conversion dramatically less expensive, quickly scalable, and more flexible.
Converting Methane Waste on Wheels: Modular, Trailer-Mounted Units
To this end, M2X Energy is developing a modular, trailer-mounted technology that converts methane waste into liquid carbon-negative methanol, a common chemical feedstock and ingredient in plastics. The company is supported by the Autodesk Foundation and designs its experimental units with Autodesk Inventor and Vault to arrive on the back of a standard tractor trailer. M2X aims to eventually eliminate gas flares from oil and natural gas operations entirely.
Methane emissions are expected to rise by 9% from 2020 to 2030—oil and gas methane emissions by 11% (PDF, p. 1). Traditionally, excess methane gas is converted into useful compounds via steam-methane reforming. With this system, superheated steam (1,300–1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) reacts with methane in a low-pressure environment with a catalyst, forming hydrogen and carbon monoxide. It's a complex and expensive process, usually requiring a steady flow of gas and specific gas compositions, as well as pipeline infrastructure to deliver the methane to the plant location. The smallest type of such a plant is five times larger than the M2X unit—and is not portable.
“Small modular units allow M2X to reach flares in remote locations,” Alcala says. “M2X is offering operators a logistically sound and capex efficient alternative to flaring their excess methane.”
Off-the-Shelf Tech Keeps Costs Low
To make its technology more affordable and more mobile than previous methods, M2X adapts basic internal combustion engines. M2X’s mobile conversion unit feeds excess gas from an oil or natural gas well into an internal combustion engine via a pipe. This engine is largely an off-the-shelf diesel motor, converted to work with natural gas. The engine acts as a reformer, running on a rich mix of fuel that is starved of air to create synthetic gas, or syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The syngas is then compressed and sent to a downstream methanol-synthesis process. The result is 90%–95% liquid methanol. The engine can run at different speeds to deal with variable flows of gas. Its power source is the methane gas itself.
Although M2X initially plans on specifying its modular units to produce methanol, the template also could be adapted to other compounds like ammonia or hydrogen. “There’s flexibility on what the end product can be,” Alcala says. Using off-the-shelf components means M2X doesn’t have to worry about high start-up costs and economies of scale. “The internal combustion engine is one of the most manufactured pieces of technology that it’s already at the bottom of its cost curve,” she says.
M2X Chief Technology Officer Josh Browne gained expertise on high-performance engines during his time as a NASCAR engineer and crew chief, and a NASCAR team in North Carolina—RCR—leads the company’s engine development. M2X also works with the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida to research fuel-reforming technology and catalysis (everything that happens in the mobile methane plant after the engine reformer). By May 2023, M2X plans to have a field-deployable prototype in the North Dakota oil and gas fields.
Methanol can be used as a chemical feedstock with many purposes. It’s a key ingredient in plastics, adhesives, and engineered lumber like plywood, as well as synthetic fibers. It’s the main component of biodiesel and increasingly contributes to making marine vessel fuel.
M2X plans to offtake the methane from the operators and sell the methanol in return, offering its mobile methane units as a service so that oil and gas operators don’t have to shoulder the risk of new technology. But large oil and gas operators may want to purchase their own fleets. “It’s really meant to be a flexible option for operators,” Alcala says.
Toward a Decarbonized Future
Fossil-fuel byproducts don’t figure into anyone’s carbon-zero future, but the timeline to bring the decarbonized future vision into reality is long enough to make investing in M2X’s technology worthwhile, according to Alcala. “Even by 2050, the most aggressive scenario still has around 20% of energy supply coming from fossil sources,” she says. “As long as oil and gas are being produced, there’s an absolute imperative to decarbonize these operations as much as possible. There are a lot of challenges to decarbonize downstream, but this very glaring problem of venting or flaring excess gas is a problem that can be solved today.”