PROVO — A Brigham Young University professor has discovered a way to transform natural gas into liquid alcohol fuel, a process that could revolutionize world markets for an abundant natural resource.
The finding by chemist Daniel Ess has important implications for Utah, which is ranked No. 10 in the United States for natural gas production and No. 11 for natural gas proven reserves.
Being able to tap into the state's nearly 7,000 natural gas wells and produce fuel cheaply could ultimately reduce dependence on petroleum and emissions by cutting out a key step in the production process.
The study by Ess and the Scripps Research Institute was published Thursday in Science magazine, detailing an unexpected breakthrough regarding a group of ordinary metals that trigger the conversion of natural gas to liquid alcohol.
Researchers found that metals like thallium and lead trigger that conversion, which occurs at 180 degrees Celsius — or the relatively low temperature of 356 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ess said the discovery ultimately allows those on the production line to bypass an expensive, high-energy step.
"In Qatar, where there is the largest amount of natural gas, they take it and separate out the components," he said.
Super-heating the natural gas cocktail of several hydrocarbons, Ess added, is "really energy intensive and capital intensive because the temperatures have to be taken up so high. What our study shows is that we can use these main compounds to transform natural gas into liquid alcohol."
That conversion makes it a significantly cheaper process, he said.
The study is part of a broader effort involving Ess and other researchers under a grant provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. The funding brought together a consortium of 11 major universities, including BYU, with a goal of converting methane to liquid alcohol. The project has been ongoing for five years, with most research taking place over the past two years.
"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," said Robert Crabtree, a chemistry professor at Yale who is familiar with the new study.
The findings also come at a time when natural gas production is booming in America — a trend that is expected to continue for the next 30 years.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook 2013 Early Release projects U.S. natural gas production to increase from 23.0 trillion cubic feet in 2011 to 33.1 trillion cubic feet in 2040, a 44 percent increase.
Almost all of this increase in domestic natural gas production is due to projected growth in shale gas production, which is anticipated to grow from 7.8 trillion cubic feet in 2011 to 16.7 trillion cubic feet in 2040.
In a report released Thursday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said a bitter and prolonged winter led to record-breaking natural gas withdrawals, bringing natural gas inventories to a low not seen in 11 years. The administration is predicting rampant natural gas production to restore those inventories.
In this BYU research, Ess said the potential benefits aren't limited to the production of fuel. Many chemicals derived from natural gas, such as methanol, are also important in manufacturing.
"Whether you use methanol to burn as a fuel or as a chemical commodity for products, this process cuts down energy usage," Ess said.
This is the second time in 2014 the local chemist has had his research appear in Science, which consistently ranks as one of the top two scientific journals in the world. In January, the journal published another paper he co-authored about synthesizing molecular compounds. He's also teaching organic chemistry to 150 undergraduate students at BYU this semester.
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