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New catalyst will drastically improve ethylene production

A team of experts led by NC State University has developed a new catalyst that will drastically improve the process of ethylene production, making it much more environmentally friendly. Ethylene is an organic compound that is widely used in manufacturing processes. 

Utilizing the engineered substance to convert ethane into ethylene could radically reduce production costs. In addition, the new method would eliminate up to 87 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the conversion process.

“Our lab previously proposed a technique for converting ethane into ethylene, and this new redox catalyst makes that technique more energy efficient and less expensive while reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said study lead author Yunfei Gao. “Ethylene is an important feedstock for the plastics industry, among other uses, so this work could have a significant economic and environmental impact.”

Study co-author Professor Fanxing Li explained that ethane is a byproduct of shale gas production, and the improved efficiency of the new catalyst will make it feasible for energy to be extracted in remote locations.

“It is estimated that more than 200 million barrels of ethane are rejected each year in the lower 48 states due to the difficulty of transporting it from remote locations,” said Li. “With our catalyst and conversion technique, we think it would be cost effective to convert that ethane into ethylene. The ethylene could then be converted into liquid fuel, which is much easier to transport.

“The problem with current conversion techniques is that you can’t scale them down to a size that makes sense for remote energy extraction sites – but our system would work well in those locations.”

According to the researchers, the redox catalyst is a molten carbonate promoted mixed metal oxide, and the conversion process takes place at between 650 and 700 degrees Celsius with integrated ethane conversion and air separation. Existing conversion techniques for ethylene production require temperatures of at least 800 degrees Celsius.

“We estimate that the new redox catalyst and technique cut energy requirements by 60-87%,” said Li. “Our technique would require an initial investment in the installation of new, modular chemical reactors, but the jump in efficiency and ability to convert stranded ethane would be significant.”

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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