Methane is one of the major climate change contributors that is 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Researchers discover methane's new potential as a chemical building block that they can use to make more complex molecules such as the ones used in pharmaceuticals.

This new method provides a way to optimize methane's properties without releasing the damaging greenhouse gasses. According to University of Pennsylvania's Daniel Mindiola, developing new ways to use this abundant gas besides burning it as fuel creates a new approach towards methane use.

"Our method will hopefully provide inspiration to move away from burning our resources and instead using them more as a carbon building block to prepare more valuable materials," added Mindiola, the study's senior author and the University's Presidential Professor in the Department of Chemistry in the School of Arts & Sciences.

The study is set for publication in the journal Science.

Methane is made up or a carbon atom linked to four hydrogen atoms. When methane is burned, the four bonds are destroyed. This results in the production of greenhouse gasses.

The researchers theorized that if only one of two of the hydrogen bonds are efficiently broken down, it could be possible to link the carbon atoms from two or more molecules of methane to produce bigger hydrocarbons.

In the study, Mindiola and team used the borylation method to selectively manipulate the carbon-hydrogen bonds. This process is when a hydrocarbon reacts with a compound that contains boron. A metal is used to catalyze the reaction.

This replaces a hydrocarbon's carbon-hydrogen bond with a carbon-boron bond. Later on, the replacement bond can be coaxed to bond the carbon to any chemical groups.

The borylation process was created over 10 years ago by Professor Milton R. Smith III from Michigan State University but this is the first time it was utilized using methane.

The researchers tried this approach at the University's High Throughput Screening Center, which enables the researchers to test reactions under high-pressure conditions. Here, the team was able to work with methane in its gas state and used iridium as the metal catalyst.

"It turns out methane is not as inert as one would have expected. We were able to borylate it using off-the-shelf reagents, which is very convenient," said Mindiola. "I think this work is going to inspire a lot of chemistry and get people thinking about methane in a different way."

The new study completed a separate paper which will be published in the same Science journal issue, spearheaded by Melanie Sanford from the University of Michigan.

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