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WVU, NETL to collaborate with Pitt, Shell to develop process to transform stranded natural gas into marketable products

Photos of John Hu, Hanjing Tian and Debangsu Bhattacharyya

John Hu, Hanjing Tian and Debangsu Bhattacharyya

Researchers at West Virginia University have had a long and successful working relationship with their colleagues from the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Thanks to a four-year award from the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment Manufacturing Institute, that relationship will continue.


John Hu, Statler Chair in Engineering for Natural Gas Utilization at WVU, will lead a team that will investigate ways to convert stranded gas resources into value-added liquid products that could reduce the United States’ demand for crude oil by up to 20 percent.

“The technologies developed in this project will utilize shale gas as feedstock to produce aromatics, C2-C4 olefins and hydrogen, which are key chemical intermediates for polymers and specialty chemicals,” said Hu. “The technologies for shale gas conversion are more cost effective and environmentally benign than those used in commercial processes based on petroleum or other conventional gas-to-liquid technologies.”

Late last year, WVU became a partner in RAPID, which focuses on using advanced manufacturing to develop breakthrough technologies to boost the productivity and efficiency of some of industrial processes by 20 percent in the next five years. The effort is overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy in conjunction with the American Institute for Chemical Engineering.

A few weeks later, WVU was awarded a $1.25 million grant from the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to develop technologies for converting electrical energy from renewable resources into energy-dense carbon-neutral liquid fuels – that is, fuels that do not increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. NETL is a partner on that award as well.

With this new award, the WVU-led team will combine NETL’s capabilities and prior work with the University of Pittsburgh’s catalysis expertise and Shell’s industrial experience and success to advance the technology resulting in an integrated pilot test. Shell is providing a $1 million match for the scale-up activity.

“The University of Pittsburgh will develop catalytic materials that will be integrated into the microwave reactor that is being designed and built by WVU and NETL,” Hu said. “Shell will bring process and reactor modeling capability, engineering scale-up and commercial demonstration expertise to the project.”

Through the use of microwave plasma catalysis, which enables long-term energy storage and long-distance renewable energy delivery from remote, isolated and stranded locations, initial projections by Hu and his team shows that the potential impact of the technology could improve energy efficiency by about 63 percent, reduce capital expenditures by 51 percent and increase energy productivity.

Current indirect natural gas conversion to chemicals approaches using traditional product refining is capital intensive and less energy efficient compared the potential use of microwave catalysis that can increase product yields.

NETL’s Dushyant Shekhawat, who helped develop the microwave approach, said that researchers are optimistic that in addition to on-site conversion, the process could also be applied to traditional large-scale natural gas conversion plants and eliminate some unit operations currently required to accomplish the same results. He added that, “Microwave upgrading of fossil fuels has been an active research area at NETL.”

Shekhawat, along with NETL colleague, Dave Berry, will be responsible for process and microwave reactor scale-up. Joining Hu as co-principal investigators on the project are Debangsu Bhattacharyya and Hanjing Tian with the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering.



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