ALTHOUGH methane is the most-abundant of alkanes, hazards of handling and distribution prevent known methane reserves1,2 from being fully exploited. Moreover, it is the least reactive alkane, so whereas selective conversion to more useful chemical products would be of great value, it is difficult to achieve. A useful target molecule for methane conversion is acetic acid, but existing approaches to this conversion on an industrial scale involve many steps under extreme reaction conditions3-5. Previous reports of the direct catalytic conversion of methane to acetic acid have involved peroxydisulphate as the oxidant6,7, but any such process that could be adapted to large-scale applications would have to use O2 as the oxidant. Here we describe such a process, which uses rhodium trichloride as the catalyst, proceeds in an aqueous medium at a temperature of around 100°C, and gives high yields of acetic acid. This reaction provides a potentially useful means to convert methane directly to an industrially useful organic compound and greatly expands the scope of catalytic functionalization of alkanes.
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