Dow aims to gas up methane conversion efforts

Mike Spear, editor at large discusses how researchers can submit simple proposals but must forego royalties in this month's End Point column.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

At the end of this month, The Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich., will close the doors on an interesting development in industry-sponsored research. Researchers have until May 31 to put in for grants of up $2 million/year that Dow is offering for work targeting the direct conversion of methane into olefins.

Announced in March, the program aims to uncover new technologies that could form the basis of a commercial process for converting abundant supplies of methane into more valuable chemicals, without going through what the company sees as the “costly and energy inefficient” synthesis gas route.

“This is an opportunity to extend the Dow lab bench and find people with ideas we might not routinely have contact with,” says Charles Kresge, the company’s research vice president, in explaining why Dow is seeking outside help to undertake such fundamental research. “Methane conversion is an important component of Dow’s hydrocarbon research. It’s very difficult; one of the most challenging areas in catalysis and we’re looking for the highest caliber research.”

With annual R&D spending of more than $1 billion, Dow clearly boasts the in-house resources to tackle most research problems with a justifiable degree of confidence, but this particular problem is proving a hard nut to crack. Such processes already exist, of course, but few if any have captured the commercial imagination.

Dow’s own subsidiary, Union Carbide Chemicals and Plastics Technology, Danbury, Conn., for instance, was granted U.S. Patent No. 6,518,476 in 2003 for “Methods for manufacturing olefins from lower alkanes by oxidative dehydrogenation.” And a group of Russian and Spanish researchers published a paper in 1999 in the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal ChemComm on their work on low temperature methane activation to alkenes, using high purity titanium containing 0.4% nickel, not so much as a catalyst but as a “hydrogen-accumulating system.”

That 1999 process underscores the difficulty of direct methane conversion — it achieved around 20% conversion of methane to higher hydrocarbons — of which only 10% was ethylene and 4% propylene, compared with the 40% selectivity claimed in the Union Carbide patent.

While some progress in methane conversion certainly has been made over the years, Dow now is giving specific priority to direct conversion to ethylene and propylene, partial oxidation to methanol, conversion to higher alkanes, conversion to aromatics, and new products from methane — a shopping list backed up with that $2 million/year budget for successful applicants.

What Dow will be sifting through from the end of this month will be “non-confidential proposals of two pages or less from multiple principle investigators at single institutions or across multiple institutions,” submitted via a special website

The whole procedure appears no more difficult than submitting an abstract for a poster presentation at a technical conference or symposium and adding a bit more information, such as a list of the principal researchers, their affiliations and relevant previous work and expertise. Although Dow does point out that after its preliminary screening “more in-depth proposals will be requested,” the company couldn’t have made the initial application process any easier.

Nor could it have made the conditions on an award any clearer. Dow stipulates “all inventions [resulting from the sponsored research] will be assigned to Dow or that the company be granted a royalty-free exclusive license for the inventions for a field-of-use defined broadly enough to cover Dow’s business interests.”

Dow is bluntly addressing right from the onset issues of intellectual property rights that have limited industry-sponsored academic research (as was covered in this column last year, see

As Dow says on the website, “before submitting a proposal, applicants should consult with an appropriate officer of their institution for guidance on whether such intellectual property terms are acceptable.” Presumably, any award winner will find them acceptable, but it would be interesting to discover just how many potential proposals weren’t submitted because of these terms.