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January 28, 2008
Volume 86, Number 04
p. 14

Catalytic Chemistry

Dow Awards Methane Challenge Grants

Northwestern and Cardiff will split $6.4 million

Marc Reisch

DOW CHEMICAL has awarded two grants totaling more than $6.4 million in the hope that they will lead to a long-sought process for directly converting methane into industrially important olefins and olefin precursors.

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Academic consortia led by teams at Northwestern University and Cardiff University, in Wales, will split the grants and undertake the search over three years. About 100 universities, institutes, and companies applied for the awards in response to a challenge Dow issued last March.

Large reserves of methane, the main component of natural gas, are available in many parts of the world. But the conversion of methane into ethylene, propylene, or their precursors by means other than costly synthesis gas chemistries remains elusive.

A commercial solution may not come for another five to 10 years, says Mauro Gregorio, Dow's global business director for alternative feedstocks. But when it does, it will be a new starting point for chemicals and plastics now made from the increasingly costly naphtha and natural gas liquids that Dow and other companies use today.

"Its all about creating options for Dow," Gregorio adds. Among other alternative feedstock projects, Dow is exploring making chemicals from coal in China and wants to build a plant in Brazil that converts sugarcane to ethylene.

The Northwestern team is led by Tobin Marks, a professor of catalytic chemistry and a faculty member affiliated with the university's Center for Catalysis & Surface Science. He's working with five Northwestern colleagues, two scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, and a collaborator from the University of Virginia. Marks says the group's focus is selective methane oxidation to olefins or other useful feedstocks via three complementary approaches that seek to control oxidant concentrations, capitalize on recent alkane oxidation successes, and use less aggressive but more selective oxidants.

Given methane's simplicity, Marks says, it is remarkable that "it should present such an obstacle to conventional catalytic methodologies." Methane conversion, he adds, calls for an "out-of-the-box approach" that will draw on Argonne's novel synthesis expertise and Virginia's strengths in quantum chemistry.

Leading the Cardiff team is Graham Hutchings, professor of physical chemistry. He's joined by three colleagues from Cardiff's School of Chemistry and one scientist each from Lehigh University and Imperial College London. Hutchings says his group will build on expertise in gold catalysis to design catalysts that can selectively oxidize methane under mild reaction conditions.

Hutchings calls the direct oxidation of methane "the most important remaining grand challenge in catalysis" and says nanoparticle gold catalysts could provide an answer. Experts in microscopy at Lehigh and in chemical engineering at Imperial College will help find a practical solution, he adds.

According to Mark Jones, the Dow alternative feedstock scientist who is coordinating the projects, the company's contracts with both research teams will allow it to obtain rights for any commercially valuable intellectual property that comes out of their efforts.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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