Oxford Catalysts Group, the newest winner of Kirkpatrick Chemical Engineering Achievement Award, has a technology called microchannel reactors that enables the small scale and economic production of synthetic fuels via gas-to-liquids (GTL), biomass-to-liquids (BTL) and coal-to-liquids (CTL) via the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reaction.

Microchannel Demonstration Example. Click image for the largest view. Image courtesy Oxford Catalyst Group.

The Kirkpatrick Chemical Engineering Achievement Award recognizes noteworthy chemical-engineering technology commercialized anywhere in the world during the two years prior to a given award year.

Microchannel reactors are compact reactors that have channels with diameters in the millimeter range. The small channels dissipate heat more quickly than conventional reactors with larger channel diameters in the 1 – 4 inch (2.5 – 10 cm) range, so more active catalysts can be used, such as those developed by Oxford Catalysts.

Microchannel processing is said to make it possible to greatly intensify chemical reactions, enabling them to occur at rates 10 to 1000 times faster than in conventional systems.  The microchannel technology is a US company innovation from Velocys, Inc. of Columbus Ohio.  In a merger Velocys and Oxford have become one firm with the synergistic combination of the microchannel technology and Oxford’s catalyst developments.

The level of catalyst activity is related to the surface area of the catalyst. This is based on metal crystallite size, so producing catalysts with the optimal crystallite size for a given application is a key goal for catalyst developers. The big challenge lies in achieving the right balance between catalyst activity and stability. If the crystallite size is too large, the catalyst activity – and hence, conversion rates – will be reduced. If too small, the catalyst becomes unstable.

Oxford’s contribution to the synergy is organic matrix combustion catalyst (OMX) production. The OMX method combines the metal salt and organic components to make a complex that effectively stabilizes the metal. On calcination, combustion occurs that fixes the crystallites at the ideal size – not too big or too small. Crystallites are formed in the nanometer diameter range and exhibit terraced surfaces, both features that enhance catalyst activity and stability, making catalysts that are ideal for the microchannel reactors.

The prime goal is to downsize the plants that could use the assembled device.  Oxford can offer smaller units, preconfigured, and ready to install at a very small fraction of the cost to build a facility from scratch.

Microchannel Comparison by Size for Equivalent Production. Size comparison of equivalent conventional and microchannel SMR units. Click image for the largest view. Image courtesy Oxford Catalysts Group.

The designed is for use in the small-scale distributed production of biofuels, and as practical way to transform associated and stranded gas via GTL into high quality synthetic crude. This opens up the possibility of carrying out GTL offshore.

Add to that the technology can be adapted to work with coal to liquid processes and to handle Fischer-Tropsch reactions, both for the CTL and other applications.  The reactor can be configured with a steam methane-reforming reactor.  This is becoming a full carbon based fuel production kit.

The path to synthetic fuels is a torturous one with capital plant costs and operating expenses the huge barriers.  Downsizing could very well turn the tide and answer the problematic matter of bulk transport of biomatter or the value adding advantage of synthetic oil production right at a coal mine entrance.

Oxford has made some sales already and the Kirkpatrick Award came at the ChemInnovations conference and exhibition in Houston, Texas.  This has to help as well as this post, AL FIN’s post yesterday and others move a little more media attention and interest towards sales.

Just how the field experience turns out is of great interest.  A steady supply of biomatter, coal, stranded gas or perhaps even methane hydrate collection ideas all have a process to get the raw material into a highly value added product.  The properties pf the syncrude may also have a better than West Texas Intermediate value.

It will take awhile for unit production volume to ramp up and drive down the price.  Operating costs need that field experience.  But today, the Oxford/Velocys merger is looking very good.

Let’s hope more real world operating information gets put up with some pricing.  There are a lot more sales prospects than one might imagine.


4 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on September 14, 2011 7:32 AM

    Decentralized energy production is the wave of the future. Putting small plants where the resources are – and selling local – will be the new business model. It just makes sense from both practical and financial points of view.

  2. Al Fin on September 14, 2011 9:41 AM

    Nice overview, Brian.

    The price differential between oil and gas should drive a lot of interest in these devices both offshore and in shale country.

    The Velocys / Oxford Catalysts technology brings the cost of entry for F-T GTL down into the range where a community bank could finance a small plant. Right now it costs about a billion dollars to build an F-T GTL or CTL plant.

  3. Matt Musson on September 15, 2011 7:54 AM

    I was wondering last night – What are the Tax implications for retailing clean desiel made from natural gas? Would it be taxed at the regular desiel rate? Or, would it be taxed at the LNG rate?

  4. Matt Musson on September 15, 2011 7:56 AM

    Would cars and trucks running on clean desiel be able to claim the tax credit for Alternative Fuel Vehicles?

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