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Statler College researcher aims to capitalize on untapped natural gas resources

Researcher Madelyn Ball in a science lab wearing safety glasses and gloves as she processes information on a computer.

Madelyn Ball is conducting research to convert ethane and propane, two abundant resources found in natural gas, into valuable olefin products.

Natural gas is a booming industry in West Virginia and the United States, accounting for more than 38 percent of the nation's total energy consumption. One West Virginia University researcher is hoping to capitalize on valuable untapped chemicals that can be formed from shale gas, commonly found throughout Appalachia.

Story by Brittany Furbee, Communications Specialist
Photos by Paige Nesbit, Director of Marketing


Madelyn Ball, an assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, received $110,000 in funding from the American Chemical Society to conduct research that will convert alkane hydrocarbons from shale gas into olefins, a class of chemicals made up of hydrogen and carbon such as ethylene and propylene, that can be used in the production of plastics and other complex chemicals.  

The olefin market is currently a $200 billion industry that is expected to grow significantly in the next five years. Most olefins produced today are derived as a product of petroleum processing, whereas extracting olefins from shale gas is much more complex and requires alternative production methods.  

With shale gas, dehydrogenation chemistry must be used to extract hydrogen from alkane hydrocarbons, organic compounds that consist of single-bonded carbon and hydrogen atoms, to complete the conversion process. The current dehydrogenation process requires complex reactor systems, high temperatures and frequent catalyst regeneration, which results in high energy consumption and carbon emissions. Ball’s research will explore using carbon dioxide as an oxidant to make the conversion process more efficient and sustainable.  

“Carbon dioxide as an oxidant has the potential to transform the production of olefins through a more energy efficient reaction process than current olefin processes,” Ball explained. “We are working to develop metal-based catalysts for the dehydrogenation reaction with carbon dioxide as a reactant. The main everyday comparison that I refer to is the catalytic converter that is in every car. That catalyst converts toxic gases into less harmful products to minimize pollution from cars. The catalysts we are trying to develop convert natural gas into other valuable chemicals.” 

According to Ball, the current commercial dehydrogenation process can be done without the introduction of an oxidation chemical, but this deactivates the catalyst quickly, making the process inefficient. Alternatively, introducing an oxidant to the dehydrogenation process, such as combing ethane and oxygen, can have the undesired side effect of producing carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as by products.  

“Using carbon dioxide with ethane in this process has the potential to improve catalyst stability and avoid formation of undesired side products,” Ball said. “There are many unknowns about this catalytic process, specifically around the role of carbon dioxide. My group will seek to better understand the fundamentals of this process to design better catalysts. A clear mechanistic understanding of this reaction will allow us to rationally tune catalyst properties and improve their performance for on-purpose olefin production.”  

If successful, Ball’s research will convert ethane and propane, two abundant resources found in natural gas, into valuable olefin products in a method that is both efficient and profitable. Commercializing olefin products has the potential to bolster the natural gas industry that already plays a significant economic role in West Virginia and surrounding regions.  



Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

For more information on news and events in the West Virginia University Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, contact our Marketing and Communications office:

Phone: 304-293-4135