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Turning $25 of Natural Gas into a $75 Barrel of Oil?

Natural gas costs about 1/3 the cost of oil in terms of energy content (see graph). What if we could convert natural gas into long chain hydrocarbons and high value chemicals cheaply and cleanly? How would that change the balance of the energies?

Natural Gas & Crude Oil

A cheap and efficient way of turning methane into liquid chemicals and fuels could free the chemical industry from its dependence on pricier and dirtier petroleum. But knocking off one of the four hydrogen atoms arrayed around methane's sole carbon atom requires so much energy that the process tends to run out of control, burning up the entire gas molecule. "If you can't stop it, you end up with CO2," says Charles Musgrave, a computational chemist at the University of Colorado.

...Siluria's discovery system was invented by MIT bioengineer Angela Belcher, who developed it further in a startup called Cambrios Technologies, which she cofounded. The system was then spun out into Siluria in 2008, when Cambrios focused in on commercializing a transparent electrode for solar cells and other electronic devices. Tkachenko says 95 percent of Siluria's effort is now devoted to the methane-to-ethylene process.

The company came out of stealth mode this summer because it had identified a novel nanowire catalyst that it believes could be commercially viable. Erik Scher, Siluria's vice president for R&D, says that Siluria's nanowire catalyst can activate methane at "a couple of hundred degrees" cooler than the best existing catalysts, which he says operate between 800 °C and 950 °C.

Relatively mild conditions should deliver two benefits, he says. Not only should they keep the methane from burning up, they also mean that the resulting methyl radicals are more likely to stay on the surface of the nanowire in the company of other methyl radicals, which can then react with each other to form ethylene rather than flying off the nanowire to engage in other reactions--including ones that degrade the precious ethylene product.

Tkachenko says the catalyst, if applied widely to ethylene production, could cut costs to the chemical industry by tens of billions of dollars annually and reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions by over 100 million tons per year. The company hopes to use its anticipated financing to move into the pilot process next year. Validation with a lab scale reactor running continuously for thousands of hours would then lead to commercial demonstration plants, hopefully in less than five years--an aggressive pace for a major chemical process. _TechnologyReview
This process is in the early stages. But it is just the beginning of what is coming, with a clever application of ingenious new catalysts. Nano-fabrication techniques will provide a range of industrial catalysts undreamed of since the down of the machine. It will take time to work through the vast array of what is becoming possible.

By Al Fin

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  • Anonymous on September 21 2010 said:
    Its funny how all these brilliant scientists and their inventions understand not the slightest about power politics or history. Nothing that threatens oil will come to be used because once you let the invention genie out of the bottle, anarchy and chaos wil ensue. Most scientists and inventors are adolscent at heart and wouldn't understand this if you hit them in the face with it. That's the way the world works, kids...
  • Anonymous on September 23 2010 said:
    The South Africans and SASOL have been making synoil (conventional refinery feedstock) for $30/bbl from coal and NG since the 1970's. When con-oil is $12, everyone laughs and orders another tanker of Saudi light-sweet. The Chinese (with plenty of US Dollars) have contracted with SASOL and their fleeing pale chemist/engineering staffs to do this in Mainland China with their extensive stocks of coal. This is the real "clean coal" that POTUS Obongo speaks of. The world embargo on pre-commie ZA was the best possible development driver for syn-fuels & syn-chemicals.Cheers.
  • Anonymous on September 23 2010 said:
    Philip: Since this would produce oil, which would have to be processed in oil refineries, into actual fuel, your paranoid conspiracy theory is doubly irrelevant.That's how the world works, kids.
  • Anonymous on September 23 2010 said:
    BTW, Philip, France runs almost entirely on nuclear power, and exports more than it imports from other sources. Japan, China, India and Canada are on hefty nuke building plans, too.It'll be nice to be an oil baron when no one is using oil, I suppose. They can shout "Mine!"Or, just maybe, those companies have thought about this and are diversifying.
  • Anonymous on September 24 2010 said:
    Yes, and I suppose they run their transport on nuclear and make their plastic from it too! Without plastic the world of the 21 C falls apart - literally! And without oil, no plastic...

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