In an effort to speed the commercialization of new processes for the direct conversion of methane into olefins and olefin precursors, Dow Chemical will offer research grants of up to $6 million over three years to any investigator or investigating consortium that can offer a viable solution to this long-vexing problem.
Dow is asking those interested to submit a two-page nonconfidential proposal through a special website, www.dowmethane.com, by May 31. Dow scientists will review proposals and may ask for additional information. Then, subject to the execution of a research agreement, Dow hopes to make one or more awards in the fall, says Charles T. Kresge, a Dow vice president of R&D.
The direct activation of methane, the main component of natural gas, has been a coveted goal of hydrocarbon research for years, Kresge points out. Success would allow Dow to make olefins, the starting point for a range of chemicals and plastics, from raw materials other than the naphtha and higher alkanes (also known as natural gas liquids) it uses today. Dow won't offer grants for synthesis gas chemistries, which it considers costly and energy inefficient.
Diversifying feedstocks and lowering costs are key to Dow's future, Kresge notes. A practical methanolysis process could make it possible to convert the methane content of natural gas from remote oil and gas fields into an easily transported raw material.
Today, most of this "stranded" gas is either ignored, flared, or reinjected back into wells. The rising price of both energy and petrochemical raw materials, however, is prompting Dow and others to find a way to better use hydrocarbons that now go to waste.
Seeking solutions, Dow has already partnered with scientists at the Technical University of Munich and published an article in the March 7 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (2007, 129, 2569) on the conversion of methane to methyl chloride using lanthanum-based catalysts. But it is not the final answer Dow seeks.
Dow intends to advertise its challenge in C&EN, Scientific American, and Science. Its goal is to attract not only methanolysis experts but also scientists who can bring a broad range of expertise to solving the problem.