UK researchers are investigating the feasibility that methanoic acid could play a key role in a low carbon emission economy

UK researchers are investigating the feasibility that methanoic acid, the simplest carboxylic acid, could play a key role in a low carbon emission economy.     

For decades people have discussed the concept of a hydrogen economy, where the main energy carrier in society is hydrogen gas, which is oxidised in fuel cells to produce electricity and water, with no carbon dioxide emissions. 

Such an economy would depend on large quantities of hydrogen being produced in a way that would not increase carbon emissions, such as by the electrolysis of water using wind or tidal power, or by the gasification of biomass. 

However, obstacles to a hydrogen economy include the high cost of fuel cells and the difficulty in storing hydrogen. 

Now, a group of researchers from five UK universities - Bath, Leeds, Oxford, Reading and Strathclyde - has been awarded a grant by the EPSRC to investigate the feasibility of a methanoic acid economy.   

The broad concept involves the production of methanoic acid - HCOOH - by the direct catalytic combination of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The methanoic acid would effectively be a means of chemically storing hydrogen. It would be used in fuel cells and the CO2 released would essentially be recaptured to produce more methanoic acid. 

In addition, the methanoic acid would be used as a feedstock to manufacture higher chemicals and polymers. In this way carbon dioxide would be genuinely sequestered. 

Peter Hall of the University of Strathclyde has demonstrated a novel type of methanoic acid fuel cell and believes that such fuel cells could overcome many of the difficulties of their hydrogen- or methanol-based counterparts. Other members of the consortium are working on new catalytic systems for making methanoic acid and on using it as a chemical feedstock. The feasibility study is due to be completed in autumn 2006. 

Simon Hadlington