Under early exploration

Atmospheric Methane Removal Approaches

Thermocatalytic Reactors

Rising temperatures are increasing the risk of natural systems releasing methane, which would drive further warming. Existing efforts towards reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and removing atmospheric carbon dioxide are crucial, but may be insufficient to maximally decrease the chance of, and then possible impact of, these risks. Atmospheric methane removal approaches are being researched to determine how to remove methane from the atmosphere faster than natural systems alone, in order to help lower peak temperatures and counteract some of the impacts of large-scale natural systems methane releases.

Atmospheric methane removal, should any approaches prove highly scalable, effective, and safe, could help address some of the current 0.5°C—and rising—of methane-driven warming. All proposed atmospheric methane removal approaches are at a very early stage today: some ideas have been proposed, some are being researched in laboratories, but none are yet ready for deployment. Spark believes that accelerating research to develop and assess which, if any, of these approaches might be possible and desirable is an important additional risk mitigation strategy.

A number of atmospheric methane removal approach ideas have been raised—including
thermocatalytic reactors
, which is currently
Under early exploration
, with major breakthrough innovations required to change this
This approach, based on early analysis, will likely require multiple breakthroughs in order to feasibly address atmospheric methane levels. It may hold the most promise if it also delivers separate benefits (e.g. for climate or pollution), as part of systems deployed for other primary reasons, or to address low-concentration methane sources.

Thermocatalytic Reactors


Thermocatalytic reactors use heat to activate a catalyst that oxidizes methane. Air must be moved through the localized reactor, either through active methods such as fans, or passive methods such as solar updraft chimneys that use convective heat transfer to move air.

Thermocatalytic reactors are promising for breaking down methane at its emission sources where its concentration is elevated. For thermocatalytic reactors to be a feasible atmospheric methane removal approach there would have to be a dramatic decrease in operating temperature (from 300°C today to under 30°C) and extremely low energy airflow. The required airflow to achieve megaton scale atmospheric methane removal would be far beyond planned carbon dioxide direct air capture capacity in the upcoming few decades.


Learn more about how we evaluate cost plausibility and climate impacts

Thermocatalytic reactors operating at atmospheric methane concentrations are currently climate detrimental and cost-implausible. Significant reductions in operating temperature are necessary to change this.

Using thermocatalytic reactors to remove atmospheric methane would require energy to heat the catalyst and to transport large volumes of air. Both are currently energy-intensive, and therefore costly and carbon-intensive. Either energy costs of air handling and heat generation would have to come down by orders of magnitude, or passive sources of heat and airflow would have to be incorporated into the reactor design.

Cost and climate impacts are also driven by the energy requirements to move air through the reactor. This could be negligible for passive air flow, but must be considered for active methods. Energy costs of active air flow methods could be lowered by co-locating the system with existing air movement systems, such as cooling towers, heat exchangers, or direct air capture facilities.

Assuming best-case 2030 energy cost and carbon footprint projections are met, current thermocatalytic reactors are not climate beneficial or cost-effective. Before taking into account airflow requirements, the maximum operating temperature thresholds are ~160°C for climate beneficial, ~40°C for cost-plausible, and ~30°C for cost-effective. The current lowest operating temperature demonstrated for atmospheric methane removal is 300°C.


Learn more about how we evaluate scalability

The potential scale thermocatalytic reactors could reach is limited by the energy requirements of air movement and potentially resource limitations of raw materials. Given the low atmospheric concentration of methane, any flow through system would have to process massive amounts of air to oxidize a benchmark annual scale of 10 million metric tons of methane (830 Mt CO2e using GWP20). For example, if you add methane breakdown reactors to every carbon dioxide direct air capture system that is projected to be installed by 2030 (~60 Mt CO₂/yr or around 5 billion cubic feet per minute), only around 0.1 Mt/yr of methane could be removed.

Even if thermocatalytic reactors become feasible, it will be extremely challenging and resource intensive to reach meaningful scale, as the amount of methane addressed will be directly related to the number and scale of the reactors built. Therefore we estimate an approach of this sort would take decades to scale after feasibility was established.

Health & Environmental Considerations

In a closed reactor system, byproducts could be measured in situ and potentially be selectively removed, reducing the uncertainty as to what gasses would be produced and emitted. This drastically lowers the health and environmental risks compared to open system interventions.

Preliminary research suggests that apart from oxidizing methane or other gases, thermocatalysis has minimal negative side effects.

Learn More

State of Research
Thank you to
Desiree Plata (MIT)
for their contributions to, and review of, this content.
This is live and evolving content, we are always open to well-referenced updates and suggestions, which can be shared here.

Explore Other Potential Approaches

Approaches Overview

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