Out of Brigham Young University and The Scripps Research Institute has come a new method of converting raw natural gas to alcohol.  It more interesting than converting to alcohol will suggest.

The team is using raw natural gas.  This is quite different from what is going out to market now.  The three main parts of raw natural gas – methane, ethane and propane are separated before they are turned into fuels or other useful chemicals.

Daniel Ess, a BYU chemistry professor explains the advantage, “Hardly anybody actually tries to do reactions on a genuine mixture that you would get from raw natural gas. Turns out we can just directly use the mixture of what comes out of natural gas and convert all three of them together.”  This is quite different from refining out the ethane and propane and then building the market products.

The next important discovery is the catalysts come from ordinary “main group” metals like thallium and lead that trigger the conversion of natural gas to the liquid alcohol.

Add to that the research team saw in experiments that natural gas to alcohol conversion occurs at only180º Celsius – that is just a fraction of the heat needed with traditional “transition metal” catalysts operating at 1400-1600º Celsius.

The team is offering that the process could reduce dependence on oil and has been published in  the March 14 issue of Science Magazine one of the top two scientific journals in the world.

The press release suggests that professor Ess used chemistry theory to understand how and why this process works at low temperatures and under mild conditions.  That would imply Ess has quite a grasp of the basics of chemical theory.

Robert Crabtree, a chemistry professor at Yale who is familiar with the new study said,  “This is a highly novel piece of work that opens the way to upgrading of natural gas to useful chemicals with simple materials and moderate conditions.”

The discovery comes at a time when natural gas production is booming in America – a trend that is expected to continue for the next 30 years. The new process cuts out an entire step of the process for fuel production. Ordinarily the three main parts of raw natural gas – methane, ethane and propane – are separated before they are turned into fuels or other useful chemicals.

The suggestion then can be America’s current energy boom may take a new direction thanks to the discovery of a new way to turn raw natural gas into upgraded liquid alcohol fuel.

The potential benefits aren’t limited to the production of fuel, Ess said. Many chemicals derived from natural gas, such as methanol, are also important in manufacturing.

Ess said,  “Whether you use methanol to burn as a fuel or as a chemical commodity for products, this process cuts down energy usage.”

This doesn’t sound too impressive to the layperson, but to the industry it proposes a lower cost way to take the varied mixture of raw natural gas and prepare the end products for the market.  That should lower prices a bit.


2 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on March 18, 2014 7:55 AM

    If they develop a cheap, easy way to convert stranded gas to alcohol – what effect will that have on the big midwest corn / ethanol distilleries?

  2. Brian Westenhaus on March 18, 2014 8:59 AM

    It depends on the mandates and the prices. For now corn ethanol is way cheaper than raw gasoline. Methanol is seldom used as a transport fuel, rather its a chemical feedstock and ingredient such as in windshield “blue juice”.

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