Known for their ability to remove methane from the environment and convert it into a usable fuel, methanotrophic bacteria, also known as methanotrophs, have long fascinated researchers. But how, exactly, these bacteria naturally perform such a complex reaction has been a mystery.

Now an interdisciplinary team at Northwestern University has found that the enzyme responsible for the methane-methanol conversion catalyzes this reaction at a site that contains just one copper ion. So, why does this matter? Apparently, this finding could lead newly designed, human-made catalysts that can convert methane into readily usable methanol, which can be used as a clean fuel to produce electricity or to power vehicles.

Current industrial processes to catalyze a methane-to-methanol reaction require tremendous pressure and extreme temperatures, reaching higher than 1,300 degrees Celsius. Methanotrophs, however, perform the reaction at room temperature and “for free.” With this new discovery, scientists could be able to harness the power of this bacteria to remove harmful greenhouse gasses while producing clean fuel.