Monday, October 03, 2011

Turning Methane into "Gold"; Siluria's Viral Nanowire Catalyst Gets More Funding from Venture Fund

Viral Template for Nanocatalyst

Wellcome Trust is giving San Francisco startup Siluria another $20 million in funding in order to advance its methane-to-ethylene advanced viral templated nano-catalytic technology. Ethylene is a $160 billion a year commodity chemical, used for the creation of a wide range of high-value products. The ability to cheaply convert abundant methane into high-value ethylene would be the chemical equivalent of the Midas touch.

More on Siluria's underlying viral-template-to-nanowire-catalyst technology:
Creating a better catalyst may be as simple as letting a virus do the construction for you. Angela Belcher and coworkers at MIT have used the M13 bacteriophage as a template for growing nanoparticles and nanowires of rhodium and nickel on ceria...“The virus is relatively stiff and has a high aspect ratio, so it forms stunning open and porous nanostructures which increase the surface area and shift the pore size distribution,” explains Brian Neltner, the report’s first author. “Surface area and pore size distribution are critical aspects of catalysts, and can improve the reaction rates and selectivity.”

The researchers also found they could eliminate expensive rhodium from the biotemplated material, creating a catalyst with just nickel on ceria. This material can catalytically reform ethanol at temperatures around 400 °C, “offering an alternative, inexpensive catalyst when higher temperatures are acceptable,” they write.

“This new approach to catalyst synthesis clearly provides desirable alternative possibilities for catalytic process applications,” comments Galen Stucky, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. _ACSNews
Siluria received $13.3 million in funding last year from venture funds to develop this technology, and the additional $20 million this year reflects the progress that the startup company has made.
The chemistry for directly making ethylene from methane had eluded researchers in part because of the difficulty of getting the reaction to stop at ethylene, and not produce carbon dioxide. Siluria believes it can overcome the challenge because of the availability of new chemical discovery-and-synthesis tools. Top among these is the use of virus-based templates, a technology developed by Angela Belcher, a professor at MIT and member of Siluria's board of directors, that guides the growth of nanowire catalysts made of inorganic crystals. After the template is burned away, the researchers are left with structure of the inorganic material with a high surface area—perfect candidates for high catalytic activity. They then use high-throughput screening methods to rapidly try and find any of the nanowire structures with the desirable catalytic activities.

Siluria says it has received the additional investment because it now has multiple catalysts that work in a "commercially viable realm" of relatively low temperatures and pressures. Erik Scher, Siluria's vice president of R&D, says the company's candidate catalysts will work with conventional types of reactors and reactor designs, providing manufacturers "with a minimal risk of scale-up. They won't have to invent new types of reactors." _TechnologyReview
This approach is particularly promising due to its largely off-the-shelf high-throughput approach to selecting the most efficient catalysts. The nanowire catalysts "mimic" the structure of the viral scaffolding, which combined with genetic engineering techniques could produce an almost infinite variety of nano-configurations.

In other words, the virus-to-nanowire method of producing catalysts is extremely prolific. And off-the-shelf high throughput screening methods allow the rapid selection of the most promising catalysts.

The metallic nanowire catalysts are far more robust than their biological models, and are capable of surviving conditions of high pressure and temperature, as well as a toxic chemical environment.

Al Fin energy technologists have been predicting similar technology as the ultimate basis for high yield biofuels production. But at this point in time, abundant unconventional methane provides an economically more advantageous feedstock, due to price, existing infrastructure, and the minimal pre-processing required.

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