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Update on the Berkeley-BP collaboration
Excerpted from an article by Malcom Brown for BP Frontiers


“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.

Natural 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 takes place.

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.


Related sites:

Alex Bell faculty page

Arup Chakraborty research group

Enrique Iglesia faculty page




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