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A Cleaner, Cheaper Way to Make Plastics and Fuels from Methane?

CoorsTek ceramic membranesA new process uses natural gas as raw materials for aromatic chemicals without producing any CO2 emissions. It could be used to produce a range of products including plastics and fuels that are usually petroleum based, the developers say.

Engineered ceramics manufacturer CoorsTek, along with scientists from Norway’s University of Oslo and Spain’s Instituto de Tecnología Química developed the process, which uses a ceramic membrane to make the direct, non-oxidative conversion of gas to liquids possible. The researchers say this process is a first and that it reduces cost and eliminates multiple process steps, in addition to avoiding CO2 emissions.

The resulting aromatic precursors are source chemicals for insulation materials, plastics, textiles and jet fuel, among other oil-based 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 Aug. 5 edition of 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,” said co-author Dr. Jose Serra, a professor with Instituto de Tecnología Química.

The ceramic membrane simultaneously removes hydrogen and injects oxygen, which allows scientists to make liquid hydrocarbons directly from methane in a one-step process, Serra explains. In addition, the process generates a high-purity hydrogen stream as a byproduct.

The Science research paper comes as CoorsTek is building a $120 million research-and-development and manufacturing facility in Golden, Colorado.

The new Center for Advanced Materials will include a research-and-development hub, analytical laboratory and materials manufacturing facility.

“Colocating the materials processing facility together with research, development, and analytical teams allows close collaboration between CoorsTek experts and our customers’ experts,” Randel Mercer, executive VP of global technology and market development, in a statement announcing the investment.

In June, CoorsTek acquired the Philips ceramics operation in Uden, Netherlands for an undisclosed amount, in a move the technical ceramics maker says will help support its European customer base.

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