Modular shale-gas processing could supply fuels, chemicals to U.S. at lower cost, with reduced carbon emissions

Purdue University will lead a newly funded National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center to develop energy technologies for production of fuels and chemicals from U.S. shale-gas deposits.

The Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources, or CISTAR, will be led by Fabio Ribeiro, Purdue’s R. Norris and Eleanor Shreve Professor of Chemical Engineering. The center includes an academic team of researchers from Purdue, the University of New Mexico, Northwestern University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Texas at Austin as well as partners from industry, national laboratories and national and international research organizations. CISTAR will be headquartered at Purdue’s Discovery Park.

The NSF Engineering Research Center, one of only 17 in the United States, will become operational on Aug. 1.  The National Science Foundation will provide $19.75 million over five years. Industrial partners and the other universities will contribute additional funding and critical resources.

CISTAR’s approach to achieve this goal is to convert the light hydrocarbons from shale gas into chemicals and transportation fuels using a network of small, modular, portable processing plants. These modular processing plants will be located close to the wellhead.

“Until we can perfect renewable sources, we have a tremendous resource right here in the United States,” said Sangtae Kim, head of Purdue’s Davidson School of Chemical Engineering. “We can use domestic shale resources as a bridge until renewable technologies can completely support our society’s needs for chemicals and transportation fuels.”

The team has proposed a new process concept that, with innovations in catalysts, separation processes and reactor designs, is projected to be profitable at today’s energy prices and is estimated to inject at least $20 billion annually into the economy, creating many jobs in rural areas, Ribeiro said.

These new technologies will help the United States maintain its manufacturing competitiveness while reducing the cost and potential environmental risks associated with gas and natural gas liquids transportation by pipeline, trucks and rail. The CISTAR process also will result in lower carbon emissions by reducing the cost of extracting natural gas and improving energy efficiency in converting light hydrocarbons to fuels and chemicals.

“The success of the CISTAR research will require extensive collaborations among materials scientists, chemists and engineers working in academic, industrial and national laboratories,” said Mung Chiang, Purdue’s John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering. “Commercialization is a major goal, so industry partners are very important.” 

Information about the center is available at http://cistar.us. A video about CISTAR is available at https://youtu.be/lEZEPE9rdR0

The CISTAR research will also be linked with educational, mentoring and outreach initiatives for students at all levels. Graduate students will have opportunities to engage in multi-institution collaborative research, to mentor undergraduate and K-12 students in research, and to plan and participate in K-12 outreach events. Undergraduate students will learn about the research through coursework and educational training such as an entrepreneurship boot camp.

“CISTAR will lead the development of the next generation of highly educated and skilled engineers and inspire young scholars in STEM pathways for this new energy future,” Chiang said.

Suresh Garimella, Purdue’s executive vice president for research and partnerships, said, “CISTAR’s goal to develop new energy technologies that will contribute to the responsible and efficient use of the nation’s immense shale resources is a transformational change in the energy sector as the nation transitions from petroleum and coal to shale gas for energy production. In addition, this technology also presents global benefits and opportunities since shale deposits are found throughout the world.”

Ribeiro said, “We have a team of extraordinarily talented researchers focused on bringing to fruition new ideas that have the potential to convert a huge but still underutilized hydrocarbon resource into a responsible and efficient pathway to sustainable energy future. We are eager to see the development and commercialization of the ideas, the associated preparation of a diverse and well-educated workforce to enable their applications, and their impact on the energy scene.  We are grateful to NSF and our universities and industrial partners for making this exciting opportunity possible.”