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West Virginia University partners to make marketable products from shale gas


The State Journal

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.  — West Virginia University has partnered with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, the University of Pittsburgh and Shell to develop technologies to take advantage of shale gas reserves.

John Hu, Statler Chair in Engineering for Natural Gas Utilization at WVU, is leading a team to investigate value-added liquid products that could reduce the United States’ demand for crude oil by up to 20 percent.

That work, set to kick off in January, comes partially as a result of a four-year award from the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment Manufacturing Institute.

 The institute is overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy in conjunction with the American Institute for Chemical Engineering. WVU became a partner with the institute last year.

The technologies developed in the project will use shale gas as feedstock to produce aromatics, C2 and C4 olefins and hydrogen.

Those are key chemical intermediates for polymers and specialty chemicals, Hu said, adding that C2 and C4 olefins can be used to make nylon and rubber products.

While the products the team is seeking to manufacture are nothing new, they are typically made from petroleum resources, Hu said.

The products and the processes to make them using shale gas will be more environmentally friendly than their petroleum-based counterparts, he noted.

“It’s cleaner than petroleum,” Hu said. “You can burn gas in your home — that’s how clean it is.” He also noted this means the plastic products sourced from natural gas will be of a much purer quality since the source material is free from the trace amounts of heavy metals and other impurities often found in petroleum.

The project calls for utilizing variable frequency microwave reactor technology being pioneered by NETL to create the chemical reactions that transform stranded natural gas resources into usable natural gas liquids and methane.

This method has the potential to be more energy efficient, require less capital and lead to increased product yields than current indirect natural gas conversion techniques.

“We’re just now getting into the development stage,” said NETL researcher Dave Berry. “It’s been very promising of late to expand upon. We’re probably on the cutting edge in terms of the equipment we’re using.”

While the microwave has been around for decades, Berry said most people think of the common kitchen microwaves with one frequency. The concept of spurring chemical reactions with different microwave frequency, he said, is a relatively new one.

However, Berry noted that if the joint project comes to fruition it could not only mean further downstream economic development, but also tighter energy security for the United States.

Hu said the University of Pittsburgh will develop the catalytic materials to be integrated into the microwave reactor under development by WVU and NETL.

Hu said the university is not large enough to make this new kind of plastics manufacturing possible on its own in the long run. This, he said, is where Shell will come in to market the new innovations to the private sector. From there WVU’s role will be in licensing the technology.

The total cost of the project will be $4.56 million over the next four years.

Staff writer Conor Griffith can be reached by at 304-395-3168 or by email at [email protected]

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