InterviewUS' Siluria seeks site for methane-to-ethylene demo plant

06 March 2013 05:00  [Source: ICIS news]

By Al Greenwood

HOUSTON (ICIS)--US-based Siluria Technologies is seeking a site for a demonstration plant that will produce ethylene from methane through an oxidative coupling process, the company's new chief executive said on Tuesday.

Oxidative coupling differs from a methanol-to-olefins technology, which relies on synthesis gas (syngas) as an intermediate.

For decades, oxidative coupling of methane remained impractical because a high temperature is required before the desired reaction can take place, said Siluria CEO Edward Dineen.

To solve the problem that Dineen deems to be one of the industry's toughest challenges, Siluria has employed a novel process – developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Angela Belcher – that uses viruses as a design tool to create a biological template for nanowire catalysts.

To quickly identify the best-performing catalyst, Siluria has developed a process of high-throughput screening. The combination of screening, nanowires and biological templates allowed Siluria to find and develop a catalyst that could make oxidative coupling a practical way to produce ethylene from methane.

The catalyst has lowered the reaction temperature, which eliminates the need for expensive metallurgy, Dineen said. Plus, the reaction is exothermic, and that energy could be diverted to other parts of the plant’s site. As a result there should be both operating cost advantages and capital advantages, he said.

Since early 2012, the company has been producing ethylene from methane on a smaller scale at two pilot plants. The company is now looking for a site to build a commercial demonstration facility, Dineen said. The company has the funds to build the site, and it has hired a siting contractor.

"We want to be at a site that has more traditional industry capabilities and obviously a source of natural gas – ideally, one that is close to potential customers and partners who may want to visit this site," Dineen said. The Gulf coast is among the regions being considered by the company for its methane-to-ethylene demo plant.

Construction could start this year, and the plant could become operational by late 2014. The next step is commercialisation.

Despite the allure of cracking ethane, Dineen said oxidative coupling is still viable in the US. The advent of shale gas has also made an abundance of methane available to producers.

Plus, ethane prices could always spike, creating demand for an alternate feedstock, he said. "If you have the ability to switch off to natural gas during those peaks, you can save an awful lot of money."

Chemical producers are always eager for feedstock flexibility, he said.

"Having feedstock flexibility in a world that is always going to throw curve balls at you is pretty important."

The methane-to-ethane technology will even provide advantages to existing ethane crackers or planned new ones, Dineen said.

Methane pricing is also more stable and can be hedged unlike ethane, he said.

For regions with stranded methane, oxidative coupling could give producers one more tool for adding value to natural gas, Dineen said.

Siluria plans to offer other processes that could use ethylene as feedstock to produce fuels and aromatics. So far, the company’s focus has been on ethylene derivatives, as well as methane-to-ethylene production, Dineen said.

Looking forward, the company is looking at developing other catalysts. For example, the company could develop alternative to expensive metal catalysts used for key chemical processes, he said.

"We know that this core capability that we've developed around catalysis is significant," Dineen said. "We've applied it to probably the toughest challenge out there."

By: Al Greenwood
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