In February, the collaborative team of Environmental Standards, Inc. (Environmental Standards, www.www.www.envstd.com), Advanced Cooling Technologies, Inc. (ACT, www.1-act.com), and the University of Maryland (UMD, www.liu.umd.edu) received a Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) Phase I grant for Advanced Fossil Energy Technology research entitled Natural Gas Conversion Using Novel Quartz Catalyst and Advanced Thermal Management for High Conversion and Scale Up Potential. The award, sponsored by the Basic Energy Sciences division of the Department of Energy (DOE), seeks out technologies that can convert shale gas, for which supplies are growing in abundance, to more valuable chemicals.
As shale gas production has increased the need to convert shale gas into other value-added chemical products creates significant opportunity for the United States. Many current conventional conversion processes require multiple steps and carry a significant energy penalty. Currently, petroleum-based feedstocks are the industry standard for production of useful chemicals; however, the dependency on oil can lead to many uncertainties such as varying oil prices. On the other hand, unprecedented levels of natural gas are now available. For example, almost 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is predicted to be produced annually by 2025 in the United States . Utilization of shale gas as a feedstock for chemicals traditionally dominated by petroleum feedstocks drastically reduces reliance on oil and accompanying problems.
Recently, Professor Dongxia Liu’s group at UMD successfully demonstrated a direct non-oxidative methane conversion (DNMC) catalyst that converts methane to C2 (acetylene, ethylene, ethane) and aromatics (e.g., benzene and naphthalene). The catalyst demonstrates a methane conversion up to 40%, running for multiple days at temperatures above 1300K, with little or no coking . The methane content in natural gas can vary greatly from 50-85%. Since existing catalyst tests used pure methane gas, initial experimental work will pass different feedstock compositions, which more closely represent shale gas over the catalyst.
To scale up this laboratory result, Dr. Chien-Hua Chen (principal investigator) and co-workers at ACT propose to employ a novel heat pipe-based reactor. Using an isothermal liner that allows for the tight control of the reaction conditions, will prevent the formation of cold spots  in the furnace caused by the inherently endothermic reactions. Applying this technology to the scale-up reactor, will optimize the yield and selectivity of the conversion reactions and ready the process for commercialization.
Dr. Joseph Golab at Environmental Standards will apply advanced modeling techniques to study the catalyst by developing a reasonable conversion reaction scheme with which to further help refine and optimize the reactor operational parameters and furnace design for the process. Chemistry calculations will verify key steps in the evolving model reaction mechanism using the experimental results. For example, since the conversion reactions depend on temperature, with higher temperatures showing an increase in aromatic products, the kinetic model should show the same trend. The calculational results will also be used to help determine optimal reaction conditions for selectivity towards desired products.
The DNMC process requires one simple feedstock (natural gas), which allows for a reduction (and potential elimination) of greenhouse gas by-products common with current oxidative conversion processes. An efficient DNMC process produces two products, hydrocarbons and hydrogen, while recycling unreacted natural gas back into the feed stream. ACT, UMD, and Environmental Standards anticipate high levels of interest will be shown by large energy and chemical companies for this very clean, environmentally friendly process. That awareness will lead to an industrial partner to propel the STTR project into Phase II to fully develop a successful commercially viable process.
For more information or to speak with a computational science professional, please contact Senior Advisor, Dr. Joe Golab of Environmental Standards, Inc.
  EIA “Annual Energy Outlook 2016”, 2016.
 Coking is a general term that describes the formation of carbon-containing materials on a catalytic surface, which degrade the catalyst’s performance and ultimately deactivate it.
 Cold spots are indicated by a decreasing temperature gradient across the furnace.