Methane that leaks from fracking wells can be captured and converted into a chemical used in plastics manufacturing.

New research from the University of Southern California has found that wasted methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that drives climate change, can be efficiently converted into a valuable new product. The study, published recently in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, found a more streamlined process for converting methane into basic chemicals used to manufacture plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

The findings show that as pressure mounts on the natural gas industry to control methane leaks, it can be done in a way that a business incentive, as well, said senior author G.K. Surya Prakash, a researcher at USC's Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

"We are all made of carbon. We cannot divest from carbon; we can only manage it," he said. "If carbon is the problem, carbon has to be the solution for mankind."

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that drives warming at a much faster rate in the short term. The United States is one of the world's leading methane polluters. The gas is flared at many hydraulic fracturing wells or is leaked from aging infrastructure. The new research suggests that methane could be trapped at individual wells and converted into a new chemical, which would negate the need for expensive pipeline infrastructure that has it made transporting it cost-prohibitive for many producers, Prakash said.

Methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 20-year time span, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Researchers at the University of Southern California found a single step to convert methane into ethylene and propylene, whereas previous research had found it could only be converted using two or three steps. The chemicals are typically produced from petroleum oil and shale liquid cracking, a process that consumes a significant amount of energy when compared to converting it in a single step from methane.

Reducing methane emissions has increasingly garnered attention from both Republicans and Democrats. The switch to natural gas from coal over the last decade has reduced carbon dioxide emissions sharply. However, it has also dramatically increased methane emissions, which environmentalists say could wipe out the climate gains of cutting carbon dioxide.

The study was funded by the Department of Energy, which is expected to see some programs targeted for drastic cuts in the upcoming White House budget proposal. The DOE budget for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, for example, is slated for a 72 percent reduction under the fiscal 2019 proposal (E&E News PM, Jan. 31).

Prakash said his research was funded by an existing grant, but worries that such funding will be eliminated by the Trump administration, because his work focuses on sustainable energy solutions. He said the research highlights the way other fields may contribute to addressing global warming in nontraditional ways, which can avoid the type of partisan fights that stifle progress on the issue.

"Chemistry is a better way to handle some of these problems," he said.

The study could have major implications for the booming natural gas industry, which loses a significant amount of methane. That comes as a steep financial cost, estimated to be up to $10 billion annually. U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has also recently begun talking about the dangers of methane as a greenhouse gas, and has said the agency will soon address its emissions (Climatewire, Jan. 23).

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at