Texas A&M professor's natural gas refining process results in industry breakthrough

February 6, 2008
| By: Aubrey Bloom

COLLEGE STATION, Texas - With the help of a Texas A&M University chemical engineering professor, a Dallas-based gas-to-liquids (GTL) energy firm has developed what it labels as the industry's first commercially viable process for converting natural gas into useable fuels. The announcement came Tuesday at a press conference held at the Synfuels research and demonstration plant in Bryan. The result could mean millions of barrels of new petroleum products - all produced more efficiently and in an environmentally friendly method that helps reduce sources of global warming. Expanding on a process conceived by Kenneth R. Hall, a professor in the university's Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering and the associate director of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), Synfuels International, Inc., has patented a method for refining natural gas that will enable the firm to take advantage of existing natural gas deposits. Prior to this technology, those deposits have remained untapped for a number of reasons, said Ben R. Weber, chairman and CEO of Synfuels International. Quadrillions of cubic feet of natural gas exist globally, but because of geographical barriers, transportability, undesirable product contents, or non-existing entry points to commercial markets, those deposits lay dormant in areas such as Peruvian jungles or Indonesian islands. In addition, World Banks estimates another 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is wasted annually by either flaring or being vented, said Thomas R. Rolfe, president of Synfuels International. "Flaring" occurs when natural gas is inefficiently burned into the atmosphere during the refining process. Currently, an amount equivalent to 25 percent of the United States' annual gas consumption is lost in this manner, he said. Hall's process - the result of nearly 10 years of work - will address both of those issues. Not only will it enable Synfuels to convert natural gas to a clean-burning pipeline or tanker-ready liquid, it will do so in an efficient and environmentally friendly method, which still renders the liquid product competitive with the crude oil market, Weber said. The breakthrough process, which was developed in cooperation with Texas A&M and TEES, is the result, Weber said, of "a marriage between Texas A&M and entrepreneurship." And it all began when Hall and his colleagues were attempting to develop a method for disposing of lube oil waste in an environmentally friendly manner. When Hall first proposed the idea of realistically converting existing natural gas into usable petroleum products, Weber said the concept sounded "almost too good to be true." However, Texas A&M's credentials in the area as well as the quality of its researchers were enough to convince Weber the idea was achievable, he said. "During our research and experimentation," Hall explained, "we saw that it was possible to convert natural gas to acetylene, which could then be converted to ethylene. And the beauty of the formula for the conversion is that every step has been verified by outside experts as both scalable and possible on a commercial level." The Synfuels process focuses on efficient high-temperature natural gas conversion into acetylene, which is then converted into ethylene at moderate pressures and temperatures. After the ethylene passes through a catalytic reactor, it is converted into products such as gasoline and jet fuel. Synfuels representatives state the process yields a significantly higher amount of usable products than traditional industry standards. Utilizing Hall's process, Synfuels - in an agreement with Aref Energy Holding - intends to develop the world's first commercially viable GTL plant in Kuwait. The new facility, once completed, will have the capabilities to produce high-octane fuels, which may be used to power any motorized vehicle including aircraft and automobiles, with only the need to flare a small amount of gas to remove nitrogen from the process stream. "This is undoubtedly the world's first breakthrough for a gas-to-liquids refinery," Rolfe said. "By cultivating these untapped resources, we will not only be able provide the world with a cleaner energy solution producing virtually no unwanted bi-products, but we will also be able to stimulate local economies where we have identified these natural resources to be available. It is truly a new day and we are thrilled to be leading the way. "Synfuels has the opportunity to build hundreds of plants, to make it a cleaner world and to develop natural resources that could never be developed before. A new era in gas-processing technology has been born." For more information, contact Kenneth Hall at (979) 845-3357 or via e-mail: krhall@tamu.edu

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