Chemical Catalysts Could Help Realize Shale Gas Potential: Report

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By Pat Rizzuto

Aug. 17 — New chemical catalysts could help the U.S. realize even more of the economic, energy and environmental potential arising from shale gas, according to a workshop report released Aug. 17.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report summarizing a March workshop it held to discuss new catalysts that could help convert natural gas and natural gas liquids into high-value chemicals with a lower carbon footprint than results from the traditional use of heavier petroleum based feedstocks.

The market is demanding new catalysts that can convert natural gas and natural gas liquids into industrially important chemicals, according to the report.

This demand is driven, it said, by abundant domestic supplies of the lighter hydrocarbons in natural gas and natural gas liquids resulting from the dramatic rise in shale gas production.

The U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical Co. and SABIC, the Saudi Basic Industries Corp. sponsored the March workshop.

Specific Areas of Needed Research

Following information exchanged at the academies' workshop, participating chemical engineers and other scientists recommended research be conducted on more than a dozen topics including the development of different types of catalysts that could convert methane, a key constituent of natural gas, into commercial chemicals.

A critical element of the research would involve converting the methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, into the desired chemicals without producing carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas.

Analyses of the environmental impacts of novel catalysts and catalytic technologies should be broadened to include water use, carbon dioxide emissions and other factors that are not always considered, the report summarized some workshop participants as saying.

Opening Doors

The research recommended in the academies' report mirrors recommendations the American Chemistry Council has heard from its members and companies with which it has discussed the changing energy supply, Michelle Orfei, director of global affairs for the council, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 17.

Not only is the report useful validation, but it may open the doors for further discussions on research opportunities between industry and government scientists, she said.

Catalysts are substances added to chemicals or materials to increase the rate of chemical reactions. Enzymes in laundry detergents, which allow the detergent to work in cold water, are an example of a type of catalyst that uses less energy than would be needed to get clothes clean with warm or hot water.

Catalysts are used for about 90 percent of the processing of feedstock materials that eventually produce chemicals, and there is enormous potential for additional energy savings, according to a blog post the chemistry council published in February. It called for a sustained and coordinated research effort among industry, academia and government.

Shale Gas and Chemical Production

Ten years ago the U.S. chemical industry was in decline, the workshop report said.

“Largely as a result of the shale gas boom,” U.S. jobs related to plastics manufacturing alone are expected to grow by 462,000 or more than 20 percent over the next decade, it said, citing chemistry council statistics.

As of September 2015, 246 chemical processing facilities were being planned in the U.S. representing $153 billion in potential capital investments, the workshop report said.

“The U.S. chemical industry has gone from the highest-cost producer in 2005 to among the lowest-cost producers today,” the report said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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