Presenting: Siluria

The green blog still has Anellotech (tech – Biomass to aromatics) and Arzeda (tech -biocatalysts) to cover based on their presentations from the Biobased Chemicals East conference, but let’s start with this very intriguing company Siluria – their technology is based on a breakthrough catalyst that can convert natural gas specifically methane to ethylene.

I was able to talk to CEO Alex Tkachenko who explained to me how their catalyst works. Siluria is a Silicon Valley-based start up company that begun in 2008 as a spin-off from Cambrios Technologies co-founded by MIT bioengineer Angela Belcher.

Cambrios currently focuses on commercializing a transparent electrode from  solar cells and other electronic devices using Belcher’s technique for genetically engineering viruses and manipulating those virus to grow materials with unique properties (the virus collects and coats materials such as metals and carbon nanotubes forming nanowires with unique surface morphologies).


In Siluria’s case, a unique nanowire catalyst was designed and grown using inexpensive inorganic metals that has the properties to efficiently activate methane to form ethylene in a milder condition ( a couple of hundred degrees lower) compared to using existing catalysts.

With Siluria’s technology, not only can they produce ethylene at a greatly reduced energy costs, they can also use a widely abundant feedstock – methane, therefore, reducing feedstock costs as well, said Tkachenko.

“The atomic arrangement of the surface of the catalyst that we grow are much more diverse and more versatile than conventional synthetic technique. As a result, we were able to discover from our library of catalysts, the specific ones that run the methane-to-ethylene reaction at several hundred degrees lower at high selectivity…” – Tkachenko

I tried to find similar research on methane-to-ethylene production and according to ICIS Chemical Intelligence, the problem with this processing, called oxidative coupling of methane (OCM), is the low per-pass yield of ethylene and the high yield of unwanted carbon oxide by-products such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Tkachenko said, they were able to bypass this problem because of the lower temperature conditions which kept the methane from burning up.

Ethylene is currently commercially produced by the steam cracking of a wide range of hydrocarbon feedstocks. In Europe and Asia, ethylene is obtained mainly from cracking naphtha, gasoil and condensates with the coproduction of propylene, C4 olefins and aromatics (pyrolysis gasoline). The cracking of ethane and propane, primarily carried out in the US, Canada and the Middle East, has the advantage that it only produces ethylene and propylene, making the plants cheaper to construct and less complicated to operate.

Except for the nature of their catalyst and the use of methane, Tkachenko said, their ethylene production will not be dramatically different from how it is chemically manufactured. Here is another article about Siluria from Technology Review that explains how their catalyst works.

According to Siluria, ethylene is worth $160bn/year and 140m tones/year are used annually.

Last Tuesday, Siluria announced that it closed its series A round of financing scooping $13.3m from venture firms such as Alloy Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Altitude Life Sciences, and Lux Capital. Presidio Ventures, the venture arm of Sumitomo also joined the investment.

Tkachenko said they are currently optimizing their catalyst and expects to reach a desired commercial performance level sometime next year. The next step after that is to develop the system around the use of the catalyst, where Tkachenko said they are already starting, and the last stage is commercialization via multiple partnerships and joint ventures.

“We are not just going to license our technology, we will undoubtedly be involved in the commercial development and commercialization of the process by partnerships and JVs in the right time,” said Tkachenko.

Partners involved could be from owners of natural gas resources, petrochemical refiners, to consumers of polymers and plastics. He added that the series A round enables them to increase the value of the company by completing optimization of the catalyst.


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