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July 11, 2017

West Virginia University (WVU) has joined a national effort to turn natural gas into valuable products and do it at individual well locations. Development of these technologies will serve a real-world need for many production locations in the Marcellus Shale, especially those in West Virginia, where some shale gas resources are stranded without pipeline infrastructure, which affects access and price.

West Virginia University has joined a national effort to turn natural gas into valuable products and do it at the well. Photo courtesy of West Virginia University.

WVU is now a participating member of the newest branch of the United States Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Network of Manufacturing Institutes, the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment institute (RAPID), the 10th institute in the national network. The institute will focus on using advanced manufacturing to develop breakthrough technologies to boost the productivity and efficiency of some of industrial processes by 20 percent in the next five years.

“RAPID is fast-tracking research that will directly increase the productivity of industry manufacturing processes while simultaneously lowering energy costs, lowering capital equipment costs and making higher gains in overall efficiency,” said John Hu, Statler Chair in Engineering for Natural Gas Utilization in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and one of the lead researchers involved in the project.

DOE has asked the American Institute for Chemical Engineers to coordinate the new institute and bring together more than 130 partners from academia, industry, government laboratories and non-governmental organizations across the country. The team will leverage DOE’s $70 million contribution plus $70 million in private cost-share commitments from partners in the institute.

Dr. Hu and Hanjin Tian, assistant professor in the chemical and biomedical engineering department, will address two main questions: how to turn natural gas into more valuable chemicals and plastics using advanced manufacturing technologies and how to develop ways in which these processes can be conducted at the wellhead.

There is an abundance of natural gas in West Virginia, however, much of the resource is “stranded” because the state’s geographic terrain makes it difficult to build pipelines to extract the resource and process it in a centralized location. In other areas of the country, natural gas is simply burned off because of the relatively low economic value associated with distributed and stranded resources.

Engineers can convert natural gas and other hydrocarbons into petrochemicals in a large refinery, but these processes are not as economical for smaller quantities of natural gas that are scattered throughout different geographical locations. A possible solution would be the use of smaller modular reactors. In modular manufacturing, smaller reactors with innovation designs can be deployed to different locations and reassembled. These reactors can accelerate or intensify the chemical reactions resulting in significantly higher productivity and lower capital costs.

According to Dr. Hu, “One more way to gain even higher levels of productivity is to combine multiple complex processes such as mixing, reaction and separation into single steps. This approach – called process intensification – could result in 10 times increase in the efficiency.”

“This research will develop technology necessary for mobile factories,” noted Rakesh Gupta. chair of the chemical and biomedical engineering department. “It is similar to the way in which caterer is able to set up a mobile restaurant at an event with fewer staff and kitchen equipment, and is still able to provide large quantities of food in a short amount of time.”

Through its National Network of Manufacturing Institutes, DOE’s aim is to double U.S. energy productivity by 2030 through the development of public-private partnerships – each with specific areas of focus – all working toward securing America’s future through manufacturing innovation, education and collaboration.

In addition to WVU, participating members include Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Tech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, University of Pittsburgh, Idaho National Laboratory, National Energy Technology Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dow, DuPont, ExxonMobil and Shell.

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