Finding a method for large scale, inexpensive transformation of methane into methanol is like turning lead into gold, says Thomas Cundari, Regents Professor of chemistry. Transforming methane into methanol is easy, he says -- you simply burn one carbon-hydrogen bond. But unless the burn can be stopped at just the right time, the methanol will burn into one molecule after another until only carbon dioxide and water remain.
"Methane is made up of one carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms," he says. "All we need to do to get methanol is to insert one oxygen atom between one of the hydrogen atoms and the carbon atom."
To ensure the oxygen atom falls into place, Cundari plans to use a catalyst and a nucleophile as a co-catalyst to stop the process from progressing past methanol into other molecules.