With natural gas reserves continuing to increase, U.S. engineers are testing ways to convert methane gas economically into building blocks to produce chemicals, a job traditionally handled by petroleum.

“With petroleum reserves in decline, natural gas production is destined to increase to help meet worldwide energy demands,” said University of Virginia chemical engineering professor Matthew Neurock.

“But petroleum — in addition to being used to make fuels — is also used to make ethylene, propylene and other building blocks used in the production of a wide range of other chemicals. We need to develop innovative processes that can readily make these chemical intermediates from natural gas.”

However, there yet are no cost-effective ways to do this, he said. Because methane “is rather inert,” it requires high temperatures to activate chemical bonds and its conversion to “useful chemical intermediates” so far has eluded discovery.

Dow Chemical in 2007 issued a “methane challenge” to seek new processes to convert methane to ethylene and other useful chemicals. The chemical company received “about 100 proposals from universities, institutes and companies around the world,” and research grants were given to Northwestern University and Cardiff University.

The Northwestern team, which Neurock is working with, is using theoretical methods and high-performance computing to understand the processes that control catalysis and to guide the experimental research, which recently was detailed in the journal Nature Chemistry.

Using sulfur as a “soft” oxidant, the chemists and engineers are testing ways to convert methane into ethylene, a key chemical intermediate used to manufacture chemicals, polymers and fuels and possibly films, surfactants, detergents, antifreeze and textiles.

“We show, through both theory — using quantum mechanical calculations — and laboratory experiments, that sulfur can be used together with novel sulfide catalysts to convert methane to ethylene, an important intermediate in the production of a wide range of materials,” Neurock said.

The chemists and engineers had attempted to develop catalysts and catalytic processes that use oxygen to make ethylene, methanol and other intermediates, but they have had little success because oxygen “is too reactive and tends to over-oxidize methane to common carbon dioxide.”

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