Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Milestone: A methane-metal marriage

23.12.2010
UA scientists have inserted metal atoms into methane gas molecules -- a potential advancement for industrial hydrocarbon chemistry and our understanding of how nature uses metals in the molecules of living organisms

For the first time, chemists have succeeded in plugging a metal atom into a methane gas molecule, thereby creating a new compound that could be a key in opening up new production processes for the chemical industry, especially for the synthesis of organic compounds, which in turn might have implications for drug development.

The UA research group also is the first to determine the precise structure of this "metal-methane hybrid" molecule, predicted by theoretical calculations but until now never observed in the real world.

The discovery is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and was selected for a news spotlight in Chemical and Engineering News magazine, the weekly publication of the American Chemical Society, because of its significance.

In the chemistry world, seemingly simple actions can have big implications. For example, squeezing zinc atoms into methane gas molecules. This so-called metal-methane insertion is neither a complicated chemical reaction nor something that is likely to happen in nature, but it's very hard to do in the lab. What is even harder is figuring out what the resulting molecule looks like. But chemists like to tinker with things. And the chemical industry likes to tinker with things even more, especially when that tinkering could lead to useful products.

"There is a big push in the chemical industry and in chemistry in general, to make use of fairly common organic compounds such as methane and turn them into something that can serve as a source for a product," said Lucy Ziurys, who led the research effort. "For example, a plastic or a polymer, something that is more useful than just taking the methane and burning it."

"Our finding could make industrial applications easier, cheaper, quicker, and they could start with this simple compound, methane. They could convert it to all kinds of more complex and more valuable products."

"Gaining a better understanding of these simple reactions that we really don't understand at the basic level always has applications to more complicated systems," Ziurys added.

Ziurys is a professor of chemistry and a professor of astronomy with joint appointments in the UA's department of chemistry and biochemistry and Steward Observatory.

Methane gas, produced naturally by decaying organic matter, is familiar to many as the main ingredient in natural gas. It is also a potent greenhouse gas, more powerful than carbon dioxide. Budding chemistry students are introduced to methane as the simplest of all organic molecules. All organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen in one way or another, which sets them apart from inorganic molecules such as table salt, which contains sodium and chloride, but no carbon or hydrogen.

When it comes to interacting with other molecules, methane is a bit anti-social. Or, as chemists put it, it is "inert," meaning one has to do a whole lot of nudging and prodding to get methane to bond with other chemicals. Chemists call this nudging and prodding "activating." And that is precisely what the tinkerers in the chemical science community and the industry would like to be able to do.

Said Ziurys: "One way to get these molecules more reactive is by what is called metal insertion. The metal inserts itself into the methane molecule and thereby activates it. It makes it more prone to reacting with something else. So you could then take this activated methane and make, say, methanol."

"Until now, there was no complete evidence that the metal actually inserts itself into the molecule bond and forms this complex. People just assumed it did," she said. "But we are the first to actually prove the existence of the complex and describe its structure to a very high degree of accuracy. It's the first time anyone has been able to do this."

The new compound is stable for a few seconds – long enough for industrial applications to immediately convert it to something else.

To create the molecule and analyze its structure, Ziurys' research group heated zinc until it vaporized in a vacuum chamber and added methane gas. An electrical discharge fed energy into the system, converting the gas mixture into glowing plasma, sparking the formation of the metal-methane molecule. Most of the experiments were done by Michael Flory, a former graduate student of Ziurys', as part of his doctoral thesis.

"We made the molecule in a gas phase, which is the only way we can really obtain a good measurement of the structure," Ziurys said. "Almost every theory paper said this couldn't be made in the gas phase, which is probably why nobody really tried it before."

"Our data show that zinc goes right in and pops into that bond that links the carbon atom to one of the four hydrogen atoms in methane. People have speculated on that, but this is the first time anyone has shown that that is what actually happens."

Because none of these processes are visible to the naked eye, the scientists used a microwave source to send electromagnetic energy at defined wavelengths through the plasma. Here is the trick: Any given molecule absorbs some of that energy at a very distinct wavelength, depending on its chemical structure. By detecting those dips in the energy inside the chamber, each species of molecule leaves its own energy dip as a telltale signature that can be picked up by a detector. This process is called direct-absorption spectroscopy.

As is often the case with scientific discoveries, Ziurys' team was after a completely different type of molecule.

"We searched in our spectra for them, but we never found them. Instead, we found our methane with zinc in it," Ziurys said. "That really surprised us. We didn't expect that to be there."

The group did the necessary experiments to confirm the structure of the elusive molecule and everything fell together, Ziurys said.

"We knew exactly what we had. Those molecules are floating around and they rotate, generating a certain spectral pattern, depending on the mass of the molecule and the bond lengths between the atoms they are made of. We then exchange the atoms for slightly different versions with different masses, and we get a slight change in inertia, which results in a changed rotational pattern. Then we apply the math and we get a structure."

Nature makes abundant use of metal atoms embedded in complex organic molecules. In fact, metals are involved in almost any sort of complicated chemical reaction in living systems. One example is hemoglobin and iron, the large protein molecule that contains iron atoms in precise arrangements to capture oxygen and transport it around in our blood stream.

"We know that metals play important roles in biology, but we don't have a very good understanding of those processes," said Ziurys. "If we did, we'd be able to use them much better."

According to Ziurys, zinc is one of the most biologically important metals, used by many enzymes to perform their jobs.

"How does Zinc react? How does it work? If we understand how it does in simple molecules like methane, eventually we should be able to generalize to much more complicated systems like enzymes."

Daniel Stolte | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.arizona.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Symbiotic bacteria: from hitchhiker to beetle bodyguard
28.04.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

nachricht Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis
28.04.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Grenzflächen- und Bioverfahrenstechnik IGB

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Fighting drug resistant tuberculosis – InfectoGnostics meets MYCO-NET² partners in Peru

28.04.2017 | Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Wireless power can drive tiny electronic devices in the GI tract

28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering

Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past

28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

28.04.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>