Friday, September 17, 2010

Turning $25 of Natural Gas into a $75 Barrel of Oil?

Natural gas costs about 1/3 the cost of oil in terms of energy content (see graph). What if we could convert natural gas into long chain hydrocarbons and high value chemicals cheaply and cleanly? How would that change the balance of the energies?
A cheap and efficient way of turning methane into liquid chemicals and fuels could free the chemical industry from its dependence on pricier and dirtier petroleum. But knocking off one of the four hydrogen atoms arrayed around methane's sole carbon atom requires so much energy that the process tends to run out of control, burning up the entire gas molecule. "If you can't stop it, you end up with CO2," says Charles Musgrave, a computational chemist at the University of Colorado.

...Siluria's discovery system was invented by MIT bioengineer Angela Belcher, who developed it further in a startup called Cambrios Technologies, which she cofounded. The system was then spun out into Siluria in 2008, when Cambrios focused in on commercializing a transparent electrode for solar cells and other electronic devices. Tkachenko says 95 percent of Siluria's effort is now devoted to the methane-to-ethylene process.

The company came out of stealth mode this summer because it had identified a novel nanowire catalyst that it believes could be commercially viable. Erik Scher, Siluria's vice president for R&D, says that Siluria's nanowire catalyst can activate methane at "a couple of hundred degrees" cooler than the best existing catalysts, which he says operate between 800 °C and 950 °C.

Relatively mild conditions should deliver two benefits, he says. Not only should they keep the methane from burning up, they also mean that the resulting methyl radicals are more likely to stay on the surface of the nanowire in the company of other methyl radicals, which can then react with each other to form ethylene rather than flying off the nanowire to engage in other reactions--including ones that degrade the precious ethylene product.

Tkachenko says the catalyst, if applied widely to ethylene production, could cut costs to the chemical industry by tens of billions of dollars annually and reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions by over 100 million tons per year. The company hopes to use its anticipated financing to move into the pilot process next year. Validation with a lab scale reactor running continuously for thousands of hours would then lead to commercial demonstration plants, hopefully in less than five years--an aggressive pace for a major chemical process. _TechnologyReview
This process is in the early stages. But it is just the beginning of what is coming, with a clever application of ingenious new catalysts. Nano-fabrication techniques will provide a range of industrial catalysts undreamed of since the down of the machine. It will take time to work through the vast array of what is becoming possible.



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