NSF launches $20M engineering research center aimed at converting natural gas into transportation fuels: CISTAR
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing nearly $80 million in four new Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) to create novel technology platforms in the fields of living cell-based therapies, personalized heart tissue, point-of-care health systems and fuel derived from shale gas.
The NSF Engineering Research Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources (CISTAR) will develop technologies for responsible conversion of alkanes—light hydrocarbons including methane, ethane and propane—into more valuable liquid fuels, including gasoline and diesel fuels. To better leverage the natural gas sector’s surplus in lighter hydrocarbon gases, CISTAR plans to build small, modular and mobile processing units for small well sites in rural areas.
Typically, these light hydrocarbon gases are transported from well sites to large-scale refineries where they are turned into polypropylene and polyethylene (plastics), accruing costs and an environmental footprint along the way.
The CISTAR approach could decrease the amount of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, while reducing chilled and pressurized trucking of light hydrocarbons and simplifying transportation of fuels to end users.
CISTAR’s charter is to:
Produce new, broadly disseminated and impactful science for energy and fuels technology from shale gas hydrocarbons;
Generate intellectual property to support commercialization of new technologies;
Demonstrate a combined experimental-computational approach to materials discovery that can be applied beyond hydrocarbon research;
Provide leading-edge analysis of important environmental issues associated with shale gas upgrading;
Develop a diversified, well-trained workforce of innovative students with technical and professional skills; and
Inform the public about safe and environmentally responsible ways to use U.S. hydrocarbon resources.
The CISTAR team will develop innovative process designs for economic production of liquid chemicals and transportation fuels from shale gas hydrocarbons. Researchers also will explore novel approaches for converting methane to chemical intermediates, which can then be used as a feedstock for conversion to liquid fuels.
New materials and fundamental understanding will be transferred from initial, proof of concept lab-scale experiments to full-size pilot scale operations with economic evaluations using systems-level lifecycle and environmental impact analysis to guide research and scale these innovative processes to field demonstrations with industrial partners.
Led by Purdue University in partnership with the University of New Mexico, Northwestern University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Texas at Austin, CISTAR could enable lower carbon emissions and improved energy efficiency, and provide a viable bridge to a sustainable energy future.
The project’s leaders estimate that their technologies could also inject $20 billion per year into the US economy through the creation of new businesses and the development of a next-generation shale workforce.
CISTAR, which officially begins operating on 1 October, will be housed in Purdue’s Discovery Park and will be led by Fabio Ribeiro, the R. Norris and Eleanor Shreve Professor of Chemical Engineering. The center includes academic teams of researchers from Purdue, the University of New Mexico, Northwestern University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Texas at Austin, as well as partners from industry, national laboratories and national and international research organizations. Research will also occur at all of the universities involved.
CISTAR has attracted industry partners that will support and participate in the research, including ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell, Clariant, Shell, Honeywell/UOP, BP, Air Liquide and others. Within the next five to seven years, CISTAR leaders hope to commercialize their technologies.