| WASHINGTON, March 13
WASHINGTON, March 13 U.S. scientists said on
Thursday they have devised a potentially easier, cheaper and
cleaner way to turn natural gas into usable fuels and chemicals
- a discovery which could lead to natural gas products
displacing oil products in the future.
The process would be less complex than conventional methods
to turn natural gas into liquid products and it uses much lower
heat and inexpensive materials to get the job done, they said.
Almost anything - fuel or chemical - that can be made from
petroleum also can be made from natural gas, but it is not done
today because the cost of converting natural gas into those
materials is much higher, the researchers said.
"Current technologies to convert natural gas into fuels or
commodity chemicals are too expensive to compete with products
generated from petroleum," said Roy Periana, director of the
Scripps Energy and Materials Center at the Scripps Research
Institute in Florida who led the study published in the journal
The finding comes as natural gas production soars in the
United States thanks to methods like hydraulic fracturing, known
as fracking, and horizontal drilling. The United States stands
as the world's No. 1 natural gas producer, topping even Russia.
"The U.S. has a glut of natural gas, and there are not that
many ways to efficiently use it," said Brigham Young
University's Daniel Ess, another of the researchers.
Methane, ethane and propane are the primary components in
natural gas. They are members of a class of molecules known as
alkanes. But turning alkanes into other useful forms like
gasoline and diesel fuel, alcohols or olefins - key sources of
industrial chemicals and plastics - can be costly and
inefficient with current technologies.
Alkanes are made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms joined
together by some of the strongest bonds known in chemistry.
Converting these alkanes in natural gas requires the breaking of
these bonds - no easy task.
Conventional conversion methods use very high temperatures -
more than 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius). The
method - very much like the original conversion process
developed in the 1940s - remains costly, not very efficient and
can lead to high emissions of pollutants, the researchers said.
These scientists said their conversion process uses much
lower temperatures - about 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees
Celsius) - and fewer steps. It also uses inexpensive ordinary
metals like thallium and lead rather than costly precious metals
like platinum, palladium, rhodium or gold, they said.
Their process could greatly reduce capital costs of future
processing plants, Periana added.
Periana said the process is not immediately ready for
commercialization and that additional research is required, but
that if all goes well a practical demonstration could occur
within three years and a pilot plant could be in place perhaps a
year after that.
The researchers have been in touch with potential corporate
partners and venture capital firms about creating a separate
company or a collaboration with an existing petrochemical
company to commercialize the process, Periana said.
Given vast U.S. and other reserves of natural gas, the new
process eventually could help change the world economy from one
based on oil to one based on natural gas, Periana said.
"This would lead to a paradigm change in the petrochemical
industry, increase energy security and facilitate
sustainability, as natural gas is cleaner than petroleum or
coal," Periana added.
Like oil, natural gas plays an important geopolitical role.
There are concerns Russia, which has tightened its grip on
Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, could slash shipments of natural gas
to Europe, nearly half of which go through Ukraine via pipeline.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and other
supporters of American energy exports have seized on the crisis
in Ukraine to pressure President Barack Obama's administration
to speed approval of liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, saying
doing so could help keep Russia in check.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)