Perhaps one of our times most prolific scientists, Angela Belcher at MIT, came up with a system that cheaply and efficiently turns methane into liquid chemicals and fuels.  Belcher then 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 on commercializing a transparent electrode for solar cells and other electronic devices.  Being so prolific tends to leave things undone . . .

Siluria’s CEO Alex Tkachenko, says 95 percent of Siluria’s effort is now devoted to the methane-to-ethylene process.

Converting methane directly to valuable chemicals and liquid fuels is an industrial challenge that has defied the best minds in chemistry.  But knocking off one of the four hydrogen atoms arrayed around methane’s only carbon atom requires so much energy that the process tends to run out of control, burning up the entire gas molecule leaving just CO2 and water.

Siluria’s development from Belcher’s work is a catalyst that efficiently turns methane into ethylene, the feedstock underpinning more than two-thirds of global chemical production.

Tkachenko reports Siluria has succeeded with a brute-force trial-and-error process that tested novel compounds with catalytic potential. “The problem is too difficult to analyze your way out of. We’re overwhelming the problem instead with a simple, sturdy experimental technique.”

Charles Musgrave, a computational chemist at the University of Colorado in an interview with MIT’s Technology review covers some of the problems and history, “The quest to activate methane’s chemical potential has left a path of unrequited chemists. Catalysis design firm Catalytica spent five years and over $10 million to develop a sophisticated catalyst and process to turn methane into methanol, but its process proved too costly.  In 2008, Dow Chemical put up over $6.4 million for methane activation research led by teams at Northwestern University and the U.K.’s Cardiff University. “Dow had gone as far as they could. It’s a sign of how hard this problem really is that they’re going out and funding others in this way.””

Virus Built Catalyst Nanowires. Click image for more info.

That level of recent interest and decades of flirting with the matter brings considerable skepticism to the Siluria claim.  But Siluria has enlisted viruses to handle the catalyst design. Its workhorse is a virus that’s 900 nanometers long and just nine nanometers in diameter. The virus can serve as a template for the formation of equally small nanowires when it’s exposed to metals and other elements under the right conditions. Siluria can create an endless variety of potential catalysts by mutating the virus’s protein coat so its surface guides nanowire formation, selecting the ratio of elements introduced to that template, and tweaking the timing and conditions of the process. To detect efficient methane activation catalysts, Siluria then subjects these structures to screening.

Now Siluria is out in the open.  The Menlo Park, California-based firm, which raised $3.3 million from venture capital firms last year expects to announce further financing this Septemeber.  With a novel nanowire catalyst that it believes could be commercially viable Siluria could offer a process that’s highly valuable.

Erik Scher, Siluria’s vice president for R&D explains why, 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.  That will help calm the runaway hydrogen atom exit from the methane molecule.

Scher continues – relatively mild conditions should deliver two benefits. Not only should they keep the methane from burning up, it also means 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.

Now keep in mind that methane at CH4 is about as rich in hydrogen ratio as molecules come.  Getting to ethylene is a huge step where going on to larger molecules can be easier.  Scale will come into play as well with the obvious energy input needed to keep the process going.  It’s not a done deal yet.  For scale to work the facility costs could run into tens or maybe hundreds of millions of dollars for the investment.  The process has to work and be efficient.

The advantage lies in prices for oil compared to natural gas.  The price of a BTU from natural gas today is about one third of a BTU from an oil product. Methane is also abundant both in fossil form, in methane hydrates and its produced from biomass in most every digestion process of bacteria and animals.  Coming up with methane isn’t especially difficult.

But getting that wondrous hydrogen rich carbon based methane molecule sized up into more workable carbon based sized molecules is a puzzle of great significance.  If Siluria pulls it off in low cost commercial scale, hydrocarbons future role, perhaps in an ever-increasing share of renewable forms, would be assured.


7 Comments so far

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  3. Ultrasound Technicians on September 25, 2010 2:34 AM

    I Think this will not cause pollution and will meet our demands of liquid fuels , Just want to say nice useful info .

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  6. Dental Technician on October 25, 2010 8:46 PM

    Thanks , will be good for future generations . and it is also doesn’t cause any harm to environment .

  7. Dawna Ohan on November 11, 2010 2:21 PM

    Thanks. Have been working as an electrician for a little while now so this is very useful.

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