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New ceramic membrane enables first direct conversion of natural gas to liquids without CO2

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Credit: CoorsTek Membrane Sciences

Golden, Colorado, USA August 5, 2016 — CoorsTek, the world's leading engineered ceramics manufacturer, today announced that a team of scientists from CoorsTek Membrane Sciences, the University of Oslo (Norway), and the Instituto de Tecnología Química (Spain) has developed a new process to use natural gas as raw material for aromatic chemicals. The process uses a novel ceramic membrane to make the direct, non-oxidative conversion of gas to liquids possible for the first time — reducing cost, eliminating multiple process steps, and avoiding any carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The resulting aromatic precursors are source chemicals for insulation materials, plastics, textiles, and jet fuel, among other valuable products.

Direct activation of methane, the main component of biogas and natural gas, has been a key goal of the hydrocarbon research community for decades. This new process is detailed in the August 5, 2016 edition of Science, in a research paper entitled "Direct conversion of methane to aromatics in a catalytic co-ionic membrane reactor".

"Consider the scale of the oil, gas, and petrochemicals industry today", says Dr. Jose Serra, Professor with Instituto de Tecnología Química (ITQ) in Valencia, Spain, a leading research lab for hydrocarbon catalysis and a co-author of the report in Science. "With new ceramic membrane reactors to make fuels and chemicals from natural gas instead of crude oil, the whole hydrocarbon value chain can become significantly less expensive, cleaner, and leaner."

"By using a ceramic membrane that simultaneously removes hydrogen and injects oxygen, we have been able to make liquid hydrocarbons directly from methane in a one-step process. As a bonus, the process also generates a high-purity hydrogen stream as a byproduct," explains Professor Serra. "At a macro level it is really very simple – inexpensive, abundant gas in and valuable liquid out through a clean, inexpensive process. At a nanochemistry level, however, where molecules interact with catalyst and membrane at a temperature around 700 °C, there were many factors to engineer and control in order to render just the specific valuable molecules needed to make the new process work."

Methane constitutes a large fraction of the world's hydrocarbon resource, but much of this resource is stranded without economically viable paths to market. Even when available for industrial conversions, the high stability of the methane molecule leads to energy losses associated with multi-stage processing in large chemical plants which use oxygen or steam to activate the methane in what is known as synthesis gas processing.

Temperature and pressure have historically been the main parameters chemists and engineers can work with to control reactions. Catalysts can improve speed and selectivity, without promoting reactions beyond their chemical equilibrium limit. Integrating a ceramic ion-conducting membrane into the reactor enables an increase in the productivity of industrially appealing processes which are otherwise impractical due to strong thermodynamic constraints.

The ceramic membranes are made from abundant materials like barium and zirconium found within large sand deposits, with the addition of thin electro-catalytic layers of plentiful metals like nickel and copper.

"With high-volume manufacturing, we can make membrane reactors from active ceramics that are cost competitive with conventional catalytic reactors for gas processing," said Per Vestre, Managing Director at CoorsTek Membrane Sciences. "While the reactor costs will be similar, the results enabled by this new process have the potential to significantly improve both the financial and environmental costs of chemical production, a development CoorsTek believes will make the world measurably better."

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About CoorsTek

CoorsTek makes the world measurably better as the partner of choice for technology and manufacturing companies worldwide whose success requires the unique, high-performance properties of products manufactured from engineered ceramics and advanced materials. CoorsTek products and components touch people's lives through amazing solutions to global challenges in energy, transportation, information technology, healthcare, and defense, among others. For more information about CoorsTek, including product information, its history since 1910, and locations throughout Europe, North America, South America, and Asia, visit coorstek.com. For more information about CoorsTek Membrane Sciences, visit coorstek.com/active-ceramic-membranes.

About Instituto de Tecnología Química

The Instituto de Tecnología Química (ITQ) is a joint research centre created in 1990 by the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV) and the Spanish Research Council (CSIC). The ITQ is today an international reference centre in the area of catalysis and new materials. In 2013, ITQ was appointed a Centre of Excellence by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO). The ITQ has specialized personnel as well as forefront facilities for research development in the field of chemical technology and materials. It has more than two hundred researchers from all over the World.

About University of Oslo

The University of Oslo (UiO) is the highest ranked institution of education and research in Norway. As a classical university with a broad range of academic disciplines, UiO has top research communities in most areas and a strategic focus on interdisciplinary research in the field of energy and life sciences in particular. With five Nobel Prize winners, UiO has a strong track record of pioneering research and scientific discovery.

Special notes to reporters

More information, including a copy of the paper, can be found online at the Science press package webpage at http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/sci. You will need your user ID and password to access this information.

Copies of the Science paper may be distributed only by the AAAS Office of Public Programs, to working journalists. Kindly contact them on +1 202 326 6440 or [email protected]

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Todd Jennings
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