The primary objective of this project is to develop a novel process for production of high-performance carbon fibers using a carbon-saturated molten metal, where the carbon is derived from the pyrolysis of uneconomical wellhead natural gas.
(Note: the specific mechanism (described below) by which the primary objective (above) is to be achieved is currently being reevaluated under the project and as such information below may ultimately change)
Early phase efforts of the project will demonstrate the feasibility of growing a single carbon-fiber crystal, with fiber-aligned graphitic planes, from a carbon-saturated molten metal. This will be followed by demonstrating multi-fiber (100-fiber) crystal fiber production at pulldown rate of 1,000 mm/min and product mechanical properties suitable for general-purpose carbon fiber applications. In the final phase, the project will develop a laboratory-scale prototype capable of producing a single carbon-tow (comprising 1,000 fibers).
Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) — Palo Alto, CA 94304
University of California, Riverside — Riverside, CA 92521
Susteon, Inc. — Durham, NC 99502
Modular Chemical, Inc. — Anchorage, AK 99502
Etch, Inc. — Chevy Chase, MD 20815
The inherent compositional variability, intermittency, and distributed nature of flared natural gas poses a significant challenge to bringing it to market. Consequently, approximately 1% of annual gas production is flared or vented (an average of 645,000 cubic feet per day (Mcfd) in 2017), corresponding to a loss of nearly $1B in potential annual revenue.
Growing concerns over the environmental impact of natural gas flaring and venting has motivated efforts to utilize this gas for onsite electricity generation, modular natural gas liquids recovery, and small modular natural gas liquefaction. However, these approaches have struggled to be cost-effective at a size sufficiently small to address natural gas flares. A typical oil and gas site flaring rate is on the order of 10–1000 Mcfd and has a corresponding annual value of $10k–$1M, making economical solutions a significant challenge.
The fundamental problem with transporting natural gas to market is its low density — or more specifically its low value density ($/m3). The transportability of any product to market is determined by its value per unit volume. In order to monetize flared natural gas, it needs to be converted into a much higher value density product.
The proposed research represents a potential high-risk, high-reward solution to issues related to the production of high-performance carbon fibers, with possible direct impacts on energy, the environment, and markets both upstream and downstream. Upstream, the proposed technology offers the potential to provide an economically attractive alternative to natural gas flaring, helping to mitigate substantial quantities of CO2 emissions. Downstream, the proposed solution could enable disruption of carbon fiber markets through the production of an ultra-low-cost carbon fiber that enables deeper penetration into large markets (such as the automotive sector). That type of carbon-fiber market penetration could, in turn, lead to a variety of other beneficial impacts such as increased vehicle fuel economy (due to reduced vehicular weight through use of carbon fiber) and thus reduced emissions.
The project team has determined that the low TRL level of the originally proposed carbon fiber growth process (micro-pulldown) is such that it represents too much risk to be effectively achieved within the project’s current budget and schedule. As such the project is currently evaluating the process by which wellhead natural gas can be monetized via solid carbon production. Carbon powder being produced by PARC’s lab-scale experimental pyrolysis reactor has been characterized for key characteristics. With this initial data, they have reached out to industrial carbon experts to evaluate the industry and market value of the carbon being produced currently from the PARC reactor.
The team believes that the goal of monetizing flared natural gas using a different approach/process compared to the original has a greater potential for success. Upon finalizing evaluation of potential path’s forward PARC and DOE will meet and assess the continued viability of the project.