Scientists Discover Lower-Cost Method to Convert Natural Gas to Liquid Fuels, Chemicals

March 17, 2014
New process could allow large reserves of natural gas in the U.S. to be used as resources for fuels and chemicals.

A group of inexpensive metals shows promise as a cheaper way to convert natural gas into liquid fuels and chemicals, say a team of scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI).

The research, led by TSRI Professor Roy Periana, uses chemistry and nontraditional materials to turn natural gas into liquid products at much lower temperatures than conventional methods.

Methane, ethane and propane, the major components in natural gas, belong to a class of molecules named alkanes that are the simplest hydrocarbons and one of the most abundant, cleanest sources of energy and materials, according to TSRI. But transportation can be expensive and converting these alkanes into other useful forms such as gasoline, alcohols or olefins is expensive and often inefficient.

Traditional conversion methods use expensive, precious metals, such as platinum, palladium, rhodium, gold, which are too expensive and rare for widespread use.

The team discovered inexpensive metals known as main-group elements, some of which are byproducts of refining certain ores. For example, one of the materials can be made from common lead dioxide, a synthetic compound used in the production of matches and fireworks.

“We uncovered a whole new class of inexpensive metals that allows us to process methane and the other alkanes contained in natural gas, ethane and propane, at about 180 degrees centigrade or lower, instead of the more than 500oC used in current processes,” said Periana. “This creates the potential to produce fuels and chemicals at an extraordinarily lower cost.”

Current processes for converting these alkanes employ high temperatures that lead to high costs, high emissions and lower efficiencies.

The development of lower-temperature, selective, alkane carbon-hydrogen bond conversion chemistry could allow large reserves of natural gas in the U.S. to be used as alternative resources for fuels and chemicals, the scientists say.

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