US team finds low-cost route from natgas to commodity chemicals

28 March 2014 19:07  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Researchers at an institute in Florida have developed a low-heat, low-cost way to convert natural gas or natural gas liquids (NGLs) into commodity chemicals, a lab director said on Friday.

The Scripps Energy Laboratories team at the Scripps Research Institute was able to oxidise methane, ethane and propane ­– separately or in one pot – into esters of methanol, ethanol, ethylene glycol, isopropanol and propylene glycol, according to a study published 14 March in the journal Science.

"This has been one of the holy grails of chemistry," said lead lab director Roy Periana.

In the early days of natural gas production, conversion processes were sought to make the gas easier to transport from wells. Now, more infrastructure is available to move natural gas, but people still have a desire to expand its applications, Periana said.

But the strong chemical bonds between carbon and hydrogen in the methane, ethane and propane molecules has made that difficult. Traditional conversion of natural gas involves temperatures above 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit), which means using expensive equipment and a lot of energy, Periana said.

Periana had previously been involved in a startup that could convert methane to methanol at lower temperatures, but the process did not work for ethane and propane. More importantly, it used expensive catalysts such as platinum, he said.

So Periana and his team looked at lower-cost elements. They used lead and thallium to directly convert natural gas to commodity chemicals at temperatures under 200 degrees Celsius, the study said.

"We can make them directly in one step with a lower temperature," Periana said.

With a cheap way to make methanol, producers can then use existing processes to convert it into gasoline or other chemicals, he said.

"You can ultimately make everything from natural gas," Periana said. "And with the US as one of the cheapest natural gas producers, that would just be an incredible advantage."

The process the researchers used is a batch method. Periana said that researchers will be working on a continuous method and is also looking for business avenues to commercialise the technology.


By: Jessie Waldheim
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