News Release

Release Date: November 30, 2017

NETL-WVU Team with Partners at Pitt and Shell to Develop Microwave Process to Transform Stranded Natural Gas into Marketable Products

Pioneering research at NETL on the use of microwaves to create the chemical reactions necessary to transform stranded natural gas resources into usable natural gas liquids and methane is serving as the springboard for more intensive work with long-time NETL academic partner West Virginia University (WVU).

NETL researchers Dave Berry and Dushyant Shekhawat have been experimenting with microwave chemistry as part of their efforts to increase production and reduce the time and cost of converting hydrocarbon fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas into marketable chemicals and products. The work advances processes to apply microwave radiation to enhance the chemical reactions that cause the conversions. The University of Pittsburgh and Shell are also participating in the effort.

Application of successful microwave catalysis can lead to production of chemicals from gas resources once considered physically or economically stranded—like flaring in a shale oil field or shale gas in hard-to-reach locations. Converting those gases to value-added liquid products could reduce the United States’ demand for crude oil by up to 20 percent.

Leveraging the early work done by NETL, WVU and a collaborative team are on the verge of carrying the research further thanks to a 4-year “natural gas upgrading” grant awarded by the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Manufacturing Institute led by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AlChE) and supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The RAPID-funded effort will begin in January.

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

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. NETL’s Shekhawat and Berry will participate in the WVU work and be responsible for process and microwave reactor scale-up.

WVU’s John Hu said that a WVU analysis showed 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.

Shekhawat said microwave upgrading of fossil fuels has been an active research area at NETL. He and Berry developed an extensive microwave capability to not only assess its potential for a variety of market applications, but also for studying the underlying science itself. NETL assembled an impressive suite of cutting edge advanced multi-frequency and multi-power microwave conversion reactors along with advanced characterization and diagnostic facilities to further the science and technology development of microwave-based energetics.

Earlier this year, NETL and WVU were awarded funds from ARPA-E to study microwave/plasma energetics to produce ammonia.

With the new RAPID award, the WVU-led team will combine NETL’s National Laboratory capability with University of Pittsburgh catalysis experience and industrial input from Shell leading to an integrated pilot test. Shell is providing a $1 million match for the scale-up activity.

The effort targets DOE and RAPID goals of increasing energy efficiency, energy productivity and capital reduction while establishing the next generation process for commercial use. DOE announced RAPID as the newest and tenth member of the national network of Manufacturing USA Institutes at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness’ 2016 National Competitiveness Forum in Washington, D.C.