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Biotechnological conversion of methane to methanol: evaluation of progress and potential

1 Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Sheffield, Mappin Street, Sheffield S1 3JD, UK
2 The National Centre for Text Mining, Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, Princess Street, Manchester M1 7DN, UK

Sources of methane are numerous, and vary greatly in their use and sustainable credentials. A Jekyll and Hyde character, it is a valuable energy source present as geological deposits of natural gas, however it is also potent greenhouse gas, released during many waste management processes. Gas-to-liquid technologies are being investigated as a means to exploit and monetise non-traditional and unutilised methane sources. The product identified as having the greatest potential is methanol due to it being a robust, commercially mature conversion process from methane and its beneficial fuel characteristics. Commercial methane to methanol conversion requires high temperatures and pressures, in an energy intensive and costly process. In contrast methanotrophic bacteria perform the desired transformation under ambient conditions, using methane monooxygenase (MMO) enzymes. Despite the great potential of these bacteria a number of biotechnical difficulties are hindering progress towards an industrially suitable process. We have identified five major challenges that exist as barriers to a viable conversion process that, to our knowledge, have not previously been examined as distinct process challenges. Although biotechnological applications of methanotrophic bacteria have been reviewed in part, no review has comprehensively covered progress and challenges for a methane to methanol process from an industrial perspective. All published examples to date of methanotroph catalysed conversion of methane to methanol are collated, and standardised to allow direct comparison. The focus will be on conversion of methane to methanol by whole-cell, wild type, methanotroph cultures, and the potential for their application in an industrially relevant process. A recent shift in the research community focus from a mainly biological angle to an overall engineering approach, offers potential to exploit methanotrophs in an industrially relevant biotechnological gas-to-liquid process. Current innovations and future opportunities are discussed.
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