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New reactor could save millions using natural gas to produce plastic and rubber raw materials

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       A new way of using natural gas to produce critical ingredients for plastics, adhesives, carpet fibers, household cleaning products and more could cut manufacturing costs by millions in a post-petroleum economy, thanks to a new chemical reactor developed by University of Michigan engineers.
        The reactor produces propylene, a workhorse that is also used to produce a variety of industrial chemicals, including a component of nitrile rubber used in automotive hoses and seals and blue safety gloves. Most propylene used today comes from oil refineries, which collect it as a byproduct of refining crude oil into gasoline.
       As oil and gasoline fall out of favor and are replaced by natural gas, solar and wind power, production of propylene and other refined petroleum products is likely to fall below current demand without new production methods.
        Natural gas produced from shale is a potential replacement for crude propylene. It is rich in propane and similar enough to propylene to be a promising precursor material, but current methods for producing propylene from natural gas are still too inefficient to bridge the gap between supply and demand.
       “Converting propane to propylene is economically very difficult,” said Suglio Linick, a professor of chemical engineering at the Martin Lewis Pearl School and an author of the study published in the journal Science.
        “To get the reaction going, you need to heat the reaction, and standard methods require very high temperatures to produce enough propylene. At these temperatures, you not only get propylene, but you also get solid carbon deposits and other unwanted products that damage the catalyst. “In the reactor, we need to constantly burn solid carbon deposits, which makes the process inefficient.”
        The researchers’ new reactor system efficiently produces propylene from shale gas by splitting propane into propylene and hydrogen. It also provides hydrogen output by changing the balance between propane concentration and reaction products, allowing more propylene to be produced. Once separated, hydrogen can also be safely burned from propane, heating the reactor just enough to speed up the reaction without forming any unwanted compounds.
        This separation is achieved through hollow fiber membrane tubes inserted into the reactor. The innermost tube is made of a material that splits propane into propylene and hydrogen. Although the tubes retain most of the propylene in the inner chamber, hydrogen can escape into the outer chambers through holes in the membrane layer of the material. Inside this chamber, hydrogen gas is burned in a controlled manner by mixing with a precise amount of oxygen.
        Because hydrogen can be burned inside a reactor and run at higher propane pressure, this technology could allow plants to produce propylene from natural gas without installing additional heaters. The researchers estimate that a plant producing 500,000 tons of propylene per year could save up to $23.5 million compared to other methods that start with shale gas. These savings are in addition to operating cost savings from burning the hydrogen produced by the reaction instead of other fuels.
        Further information: Ravan Almallahi et al., Overcoming the limitations of propane dehydrogenation through co-design of catalytic/membrane systems, Science (2024). DOI: 10.1126/science.adh3712. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.adh3712
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Post time: Mar-25-2024