The new catalyst would help lower production costs because it helps reduce heat effectively and uses a smaller amount of platinum than what is used currently, said Keiichi Tomishige, associate professor at University of Tsukuba.
It can also use less costly palladium, he said.
Currently, either nickel or platinum is used as catalyst to turn natural gas into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, the first stage of a manufacturing process that eventually turns them into methanol and alternative auto fuels.
Methanol is a key raw material in producing plastic.
Auto fuels made from natural gas, or so-called gas-to-liquid fuels, are now under development in Japan, and have already been in commercial production in countries such as South Africa.
A growing number of manufacturers now prefer natural gas to oil as a raw material to cut costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change.
Tomishige said the new catalyst, made of nickel finely coated with platinum or palladium, could scale down processing facilities as it reuses heat in the production process, and it contains only one-tenth to one-twentieth of the platinum currently needed, he said.
The new technology, developed with funds supported by Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), has been shown to be effective in laboratory tests, he said.
"It takes two or three more steps to make it commercially available," Tomishige said.
(Reporting by Risa Maeda)¨