Organic chemists have long been challenged to find an easy way to break apart, or activate, the single bonds in methane so that they could use this very abundant compound as a building block to synthesize organic compounds. But methane is stubbornly unreactive. Recently, Dudley Herschbach and his colleagues at Harvard University found that they could use a catalytic supersonic nozzle to produce high yields of more reactive intermediaries starting with ethane—a cousin of methane. The new method is tantalizing, although it has not yet worked with methane—and even if it were to, it would have to be scaled up from producing thimblefuls to churning out millions of barrels of hydrocarbons before it would be of interest to the petroleum industry. Short of that, the catalytic supersonic nozzle is of 1nterest as a way to do nonequilibrium chemisty.

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