New Alchemy That Turns Gas Into Gasoline

Natural gas is abundant and cheap. If scientists could find an efficient way to use it as a petrochemical feedstock, product costs and U. S. dependence on foreign oil could be greatly reduced. So far, wasteful methods that employ high temperatures and pressure have offered the only options for converting methane to petrochemicals. But researchers at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago have another idea.

Victor A. Maroni, an Argonne materials science researcher, is working with catalysts he calls "molecular sieves." The pore size of these sieves can be tailored so that only certain-size molecules can pass in or out--letting only specific chemical reactions take place. Although such catalysts are now used in industry, the key feature of Maroni's sieves is that they also are sprinkled with metal additives such as cobalt that can break the bonds of methane. That lets a sieve with small pores be used to make ethylene from natural gas--whereas larger pores could yield gasoline. The Energy Dept. sponsors Maroni's work, and several petrochemical companies are interested in licensing his technology.

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