on the Berkeley-BP collaboration
Excerpted from an article by Malcom Brown for
“Methane is a very happy molecule,” says Theo
Fleisch. “It likes to be methane.”
Dr. Fleisch, a senior BP adviser, is director of a collaboration between
BP, Berkeley and Caltech, the principal aim of which is to discomfit the
happy molecule a bit. The goal of the $20 million 10-year partnership,
now in its fourth year, is to find ways of taking this very stable molecule
apart and restructuring it to make everything from ultra-clean fuels to
feedstocks for the chemical industry.
gas, which is more than 80 percent methane, used to be thought of as a
nuisance. Today, some estimates suggest that within 25 to 30 years the
world will consume more gas than oil. It will be a “gas economy.”
But achieving that turnaround will not be easy. The world has huge reserves
of natural gas, but transportation is a challenge.
One alternative is to go directly from methane to products like methanol,
which is where Berkeley and Caltech come in. Both are searching for new,
cheaper conversion methods. Berkeley is focusing largely (but not exclusively)
on methods that use heterogeneous catalysts, while Caltech is concentrating
on homogeneous catalysis. In heterogeneous catalysis the catalyst is a
solid material. The gas to be catalysed is passed over it and a reaction
An example of heterogeneous catalysis is the work of chemical engineering
professor Alex Bell, who is investigating the limiting factors
on the high-temperature one-step conversion of methane to formaldehyde.
Chemists have known how to convert methane to formaldehyde by adding oxygen
for many years, but the yields of formaldehyde, a key chemical building
block, have never been high enough to be commercially attractive. Bell
thinks the Berkeley team now understands what limits the yield.
He and his colleagues have devised clever ways to monitor what happens
during catalysis. One of the latest developments is a tiny glass micro-reactor,
small enough to fit into the palm of a hand, that can be used to study
the oxidation stage of the process. “Soft” X-rays generated by the advanced
light source of a synchrotron particle accelerator are passed through
the micro-reactor. By detecting the energy levels at which the beam is
absorbed, the researchers can tell the oxidation state of the catalyst.
Chemical engineering professors Enrique Iglesia and Arup Chakraborty
are also participating in this collaboration, working towards the goal
of discovering new heterogeneous catalytic methods for the conversion
of methane into useful liquid products.
Bell faculty page
Chakraborty research group
Iglesia faculty page