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Scientists develop more efficient natural gas-to-fuels process

Scientists develop more efficient natural gas-to-fuels process thumbnail

U.S. scientists says they have devised a potentially easier, cheaper and cleaner way to turn natural gas into usable fuels and chemicals — a discovery which could lead to natural gas products displacing oil products in the future.

The process would be less complex than conventional methods to turn natural gas into liquid products and it uses much lower heat and inexpensive materials to get the job done, they say.

Almost anything — fuel or chemical — that can be made from petroleum also can be made from natural gas, but it is not done today because the cost of converting natural gas into those materials is much higher, the researchers say.

“Current technologies to convert natural gas into fuels or commodity chemicals are too expensive to compete with products generated from petroleum,” says Roy Periana, director of the Scripps Energy and Materials Center at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida who led the study published in the journal Science.

The United States stands as the world’s No. 1 natural gas producer, topping even Russia.

“The U.S. has a glut of natural gas, and there are not that many ways to efficiently use it,” says Brigham Young University’s Daniel Ess, another of the researchers.

Methane, ethane and propane are the primary components in natural gas. They are members of a class of molecules known as alkanes. But turning alkanes into other useful forms like gasoline and diesel fuel, alcohols or olefins can be costly and inefficient with current technologies.

Breaking bonds

Alkanes are made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms joined together by some of the strongest bonds known in chemistry. Converting these alkanes in natural gas requires the breaking of these bonds — no easy task.

Conventional conversion methods use very high temperatures — more than 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius). The method — very much like the original conversion process developed in the 1940s — remains costly, not very efficient and can lead to high emissions of pollutants, the researchers say.

These scientists say their conversion process uses much lower temperatures — about 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) — and fewer steps. It also uses inexpensive ordinary metals like thallium and lead rather than costly precious metals like platinum, palladium, rhodium or gold, they say.

Their process could greatly reduce capital costs of future processing plants, Periana adds.

Periana says the process is not immediately ready for commercialization and that additional research is required, but that if all goes well a practical demonstration could occur within three years and a pilot plant could be in place perhaps a year after that.

The researchers have been in touch with potential corporate partners and venture capital firms about creating a separate company or a collaboration with an existing petrochemical company to commercialize the process, Periana says.

Given vast U.S. and other reserves of natural gas, the new process eventually could help change the world economy from one based on oil to one based on natural gas, Periana says.

“This would lead to a paradigm change in the petrochemical industry, increase energy security and facilitate sustainability, as natural gas is cleaner than petroleum or coal,” Periana adds.

Prarie Biz

17 Comments on "Scientists develop more efficient natural gas-to-fuels process"

  1. Plantagenet on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 5:30 pm 

    This is a major discovery. The ability to make cheap liquid fuels from NG is just what the world needs as oil production peaks.

    Obama says the US has a 100 year supply of NG, so this discovery holds the promise of another century of economic growth.

  2. Nony on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 5:36 pm 

    Yawn. Believe it when I see it. Or when the oil futures price crashes from anticipation.

    Seen this hype before. It’s not new chemistry either. Actually we had one of these thallium catalyst stories on this very blog a couple weeks ago. Reminds me of the methanol fuel cell breakthrough stuff that we would hear about in the mid 90s. 20 years later and where is that stuff now??

  3. chilyb on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 6:21 pm 

    Nony, this is another article about the new chemistry described two weeks ago.

  4. Northwest Resident on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 6:33 pm 

    So, is it more efficient, or is it just “potentially easier, cheaper and cleaner” and “could lead” to something worthwhile in the future? I love it when a headline trumpets definitive scientific achievement in big bold black letters, then the actual article just describes “could bes”, “maybes” and “if everything works out just rights”. Wishy washy crap.

  5. chilyb on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 6:44 pm 

    NR – everything is “could be” until it is demonstrated in production.

  6. Northwest Resident on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 7:34 pm 

    chilyb — Totally agree. But the headline states “Scientists develop..”, versus “Scientists hope to develop”, or “Scientists think they can develop”, etc… It isn’t a nitpicky point. I studied journalism in college and wrote a lot of feature articles like this one. The title is misleading, which back in the day was a big no-no. These days, I suppose it is par for the course.

  7. J-Gav on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 7:47 pm 

    Okay, potential is potential … Good luck to the researchers. Meanwhile, I’m not holding my breath.

  8. Nony on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 7:59 pm 

    When it gets $billion investments like those LNG terminals, pipelines, etc. than I will believe in it. Right now, it’s typical glossy science journal hype.

  9. chilyb on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 8:29 pm 

    NR – The title could be perfectly accurate for lab scale. But to be honest, I don’t read into these things too much. Nony’s assessment is accurate. It could be a major breakthrough in this field, but time will tell.

  10. Meld on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 10:30 pm 

    @Plantagenet – what do you think happens to that NG supply when all transport is converted to use NG? it drops from 100 years to about 10-15 that’s what.

    The market will decide if this is an efficient way to power the economy, and seeing as the market is totally broken I’m not holding my hopes out 😉

  11. chilphil1986 on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 10:54 pm 

    I am interested to see what the all-important figures are on ROEI for this process in a commercial setting down the road. Sure, the article points out that this will reduce the energy necessary to process the NG into petrol. That doesn’t take into account the energy necessary to extract the NG nor the energy gained from the end petrol products. I’m assuming that’s what their research will be determine. Conventional oil right now is still somewhere around or above 20:1 ROEI (please correct me if I’m wrong). Nat gas itself is 10-15:1. I want to see where this new method of producing synthetic stacks up before I get all excited.

  12. GregT on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 11:05 pm 

    “Almost anything — fuel or chemical — that can be made from petroleum also can be made from natural gas, but it is not done today because the cost of converting natural gas into those materials is much higher, the researchers say.”

    The economy is already grinding to a halt with $100 bbl oil. A ‘much higher’ priced alternative is obviously not the answer. Also, as Meld pointed out above, use ten times as much Nat Gas, and it runs out ten times as fast.

    The cheerleading is coming out fast and furious now, a sure sign of things to come.

  13. Davy, Hermann, MO on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 11:44 am 

    We need to have breakthroughs with simple, low tech, low cost energy ideas. They are what we used to do pre petroleum man. I am saying we need breakthroughs because we need a breakthrough with psychology. We need all the blind exuberance in technology, knowledge, growth, markets and substitution to give way to humility of our predicament. We need to do less with less and all the technology that will work in a world of less. So we need a revolutionary change in mentality of reverse technology. It is revolutionary because modern society is a runaway train that believes the answers are more and better of the same. We now have carrying capacity overshoot, diminishing returns, limits of growth, and dysfunctional markets. Yet, we still believe in the same old ideas will save us. Our great minds have mentioned before we can’t solve our problems with the same ideas that got us here. I am not naïve to also mention less with less will lead to an economic collapse. The end of growth is the end of our modern economy. There is no guarantee there will be a gentle ride down with a complex interconnect global economy ending when all local support systems rely on the global. “BUT” it is our only hope for a reboot somewhere in the darkness. I once jumped off a train bridge into a river in the dark. I was 16 and we were drinking whisky. I knew where the river was below. Of course I didn’t know the depth or if there were logs. I jumped first being crazy with drink. Half way down I expected to hit water so I tensed up. I keep going and finally hit water. It hurt like hell because being tensed up my neck and back were stressed. The other guys came behind me and I was lucky they didn’t hit me. The moral of stupidity of youth??? The longer we climb up the longer the fall and the dangers of damage. If there is no way to avoid the jump we have to get on with decent and hope for the best. The big breakthrough is admitting we need to slow down now and face the hard facts of decent.

  14. simonr on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 1:26 pm 

    if you have 100yrs consuming N cubic metres a year, and now you start to use this as feedstock for chemicals and fuel, give the relative energy densities of these products, to make a significant difference, what will that 100 years shrink to ?

  15. Nony on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 2:38 pm 

    Yeah, I saw (a little later) that it was an article on same Science paper (but then why are we rerunning it here). But anyhow, these Science/Nature papers have a habit of hyping. It’s been 20 years since we heard about the new thin film fuel cells. And still nothing happening commercially. Thallium catalysts are not a new idea and this whole thing is way, way prospective. Not anything people are investing in, not a real breakthrough.

    It’s just some lab guy who wants to get a few more grants to hire postdocs and get a raise at Scripps, hyping his organometallic chemistry research. If it weren’t methane conversion, he’d come up with some bionano crap (and probably wouldn’t even bother him that Tl is toxic. ;-)) I know these academicers. They’re worse than farmers when they come asking for money.

  16. ragged on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 4:42 pm

    The company Siluria is currently building a demonstration plant to use a new GTL catalyst (different from this one). I posted more about it in the “Energy Technology/GTL” thread. Who knows?

  17. Kenz300 on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 7:57 pm 

    Still looking for big centralized solutions……..

    Smaller, decentralized solutions producing local energy with local jobs is better for the economy and energy security.

    We can produce energy, biofuels and recycled materials for new products from our current waste or trash streams. There are over 2200 current locations that can be converted to produce energy locally.

    Every current landfill can be converted to produce energy,

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