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The Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology (BCST) of the National Research Council (NRC) will host an interactive, multidisciplinary public workshop scheduled for May 2016 that will focus on identifying gaps and opportunities in catalysis research in an era of shifting feedstocks from crude oil to natural gas for chemical production.

Possible outcomes of the workshop could be research that develops new methane conversions to chemical intermediates; develops new pathways for converting plentiful natural gas into useful chemicals with simple, inexpensive materials and moderate conditions; and enables on-purpose routes to chemicals that have traditionally been produced as byproducts of crude oil refining.

Background. Currently, global petrochemical production is largely based on conversion of crude oil products—primarily naphtha, a complex mixture of hydrocarbons generally having between 5 and 12 carbon atoms. Naphtha is converted into a wide variety of lighter hydrocarbon products, including fuel oils, other fuels, and bulk-/fine-chemical precursors.

Many of these products are byproducts of even larger processing steps. For example, the production of butadiene used for tires is a byproduct of ethylene production from naphtha.

Natural gas, on the other hand, consists primarily of methane, but also includes varying amounts of other alkanes, such as ethane, propane and butane, which are valued as feedstocks in chemical markets.

The most significant of these is ethane, which is converted to ethylene and then a wide range of downstream products, ranging from adhesives to textiles to plastics.

Switching feedstock from naphtha to ethane, while creating opportunities for the petrochemical industry, has also changed the relative availability of chemical products, and thus has impacted their costs. For example, the cost of ethylene has decreased, while the cost of butadiene capacity has risen, as it is a byproduct of naphtha/oil cracking used to create ethylene. Likewise, aromatic chemicals, such as styrene, xylene, and many others are increasing in cost, since their production is also based on naphtha byproducts.



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