CISTAR Frequently Asked Questions

Can you briefly describe what CISTAR is all about?

CISTAR is the name of a newly funded National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center (ERC). The acronym stands for Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources. The ERC brings together researchers from five premier U.S. research universities and industrial collaborators from more than a dozen companies to focus on developing breakthrough solutions to more effective conversion of America’s shale derived light hydrocarbon resources. The center will focus on developing novel modular technologies that more efficiently convert the light hydrocarbons to advanced fuels and petrochemicals. These technologies will provide a bridge to a sustainable future where renewables replace shale resources as the hydrocarbon resources.

Why is CISTAR a breakthrough concept?

CISTAR will produce a new business model, enabled by major advances in catalytic and separation technologies. The program will develop technologies that will lead to more efficient alternatives to the current large refining and petrochemical plant model. Situating advanced modular conversion units closer to the hydrocarbon resource will eliminate the need for lengthy pipelines, and long distance rail and highway transport of hydrocarbon liquids. These modular units will greatly reduce the energy needed to convert the shale resources to valuable fuels and petrochemicals. They should also produce fewer green house gas emissions per mass of product or per unit of energy compared with more conventional petroleum resources.

What are the major scientific and technical challenges that CISTAR plans to address?

Primarily, CISTAR seeks to produce breakthrough scientific discoveries in how we convert lighter hydrocarbons, including methane, ethane, propane, butane and pentane into higher value petrochemicals (ethylene, propylene, butenes, pentenes, etc.) and liquid fuels (jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline). We anticipate that the fundamental breakthroughs here will emerge from new concepts in catalysis and separations science. The methane challenge is a particularly interesting one, since it has been an objective of many research groups around the world for at least the past 75 years. Finding an economic means to convert methane to more easily transported liquid hydrocarbons would be a true “game-changer.” The second major technical challenge is related to the miniaturization and modularization of the novel catalytic conversion and separation processes that we plan to develop. Modularization and its “design one – produce many” paradigm presents numerous engineering challenges. Modularization would also produce a major change in the business models that the energy and petrochemical industries have been pursuing for more than 150 years. We expect that this would motivate a move away from the large refining complexes that are mainly located on the U.S. Gulf, West and East Coasts to a more regional model. This would also produce changes in the regional employment profiles.

Why is CISTAR uniquely qualified to tackle these changes?

The five universities that form CISTAR each contribute key intellectual and physical capabilities, which, in combination, provide an unprecedented technical entity that is extremely well qualified to take on the challenges of light hydrocarbon conversion and separation. CISTAR brings together experts with over 120 years of industrial experience in the energy area. The technical staff are inventors or co-inventors of over 600 issued U.S. patents. Nine CISTAR principal investigators are members of the U. S. National Academies (Engineering or Science). The CISTAR alliance also boasts a National Medal of Technology winner and a National Medal of Science winner. In addition, CISTAR is able to draw upon unique and world class research facilities including the highly regarded University of Texas Process Science and Technology Center, Argonne National Laboratory, and others.

Can you describe what each of the five partner universities contribute to CISTAR?

Purdue University, the University of New Mexico, Northwestern University, University of Notre Dame, and the University of Texas at Austin bring complimentary physical and research faculty capabilities. Each of the preeminent research universities is recognized as a leader in at least one aspect of what will be needed to address the CISTAR challenges. All five universities have excellent collaborative relationships with industrial partners in the energy and chemicals industries as well as relationships with the U. S. National Laboratories.

What makes CISTAR qualified to be an Engineering Research Center

NSF Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) are “interdisciplinary, multi- institutional centers that join academia, industry, and government in partnership to produce transformational engineered systems and engineering graduates who are adept at innovation and primed for leadership in the global economy.”[1] ERC’s are based on the premise that complex technical and societal problems the United States faces cannot be addressed by the traditional model of individual university research groups headed by a single principal investigator. Light hydrocarbon (including methane) upgrading is a key United States techno-economic challenge given the emergence of the United States as the world’s largest producer of natural gas, natural gas liquids, and petroleum crudes. Finding better ways and more sustainable ways to address the opportunities provided by these precious domestic resources is the overarching goal of CISTAR. Addressing this goal cannot be the province of single principal investigators at disparate universities. Instead a consortium / alliance among premier U.S. universities key government laboratories and industrial partners is required. A vision for such a consortium was the genesis of this ERC.

How will CISTAR work with other transformative manufacturing initiatives (such as the AIChE RAPID)?

CISTAR has established an advisory committee that will help coordinate and facilitate connections with other research thrusts around the world. CISTAR will initiate exchange programs with other federally funded research programs working in related and adjoining areas so that scholars (primarily graduate students and post-doctoral students) will undertake exchange assignments between CISTAR and the other programs.

What are CISTAR’s key deliverables?

CISTAR aims to produce breakthrough scientific discoveries in light hydrocarbon upgrading through the use of catalysis and separations science. It will produce intellectual property that will be the foundation for the development of new modular chemical and refining processes. CISTAR will be responsible for moving the discoveries from the lab bench through the pilot scale stage. Full-scale commercial demonstration will be the responsibility of the commercial partners. However, CISTAR will provide critical expertise and will also assist in the techno-economic assessments.

What is CISTAR’s timetable?

Consistent with the ambitious goals of making scientific breakthroughs and delivering transformative technologies, CISTAR has a 10-year horizon. Initial demonstration of technical breakthroughs will be rapid. CISTAR is committed to move discoveries from the laboratory bench to the pilot scale in less than two years. Commercial implementation of new technology in capital- intensive industries such as energy and chemicals often requires a decade or more. CISTAR aims to cut this in half through use of its excellent physical facilities and strategic relationships with its industrial partners.

How will CISTAR work with its industrial partners?

CISTAR’s organizational design includes an Industrial Advisory Board (IAB) that will meet at least annually to provide advice and guidance regarding the direction of each of CISTAR’s programs. The IAB will be responsible for reviewing new proposals and making sure that programs are completed or closed out. CISTAR currently has twelve industrial partners who have pledged to provide financial support.

Who will be impacted by CISTAR?

The United States stands to be the largest beneficiary of CISTAR’s success. We anticipate CISTAR will have a demonstrable and quantifiable impact on the quality of life, especially in the U.S. through advances in sustainable development of our hydrocarbon natural resources. It will make the U.S. more globally competitive in the manufacturing sector. Furthermore, CISTAR will improve the quality of our scientific and technical workforce working in the areas of energy and chemicals. The program should also provide a significant number of highly compensated new jobs in the energy and manufacturing sectors.

How is CISTAR addressing environmental concerns?

CISTAR will create the bridge fuel that will provide the world time to develop sustainable solutions. Shale gas and light hydrocarbon condensate produce far less CO2 than heavy oil or coal. Shale gas, when used in place of coal to produce power, generates 50-60% less CO2 than coal, when producing an equivalent amount of power. CISTAR’s modular concept, situated near the hydrocarbon source will reduce the need for new gas pipelines, and the amount of flammable gas and liquid transport over highways and the country’s railways.

How will CISTAR improve the diversity of the workforce?

The diversity challenges faced by CISTAR are not unique, but through a strong industry-academia partnership, our dedicated mentors and leaders will forge academic and interpersonal connections with diverse students and junior faculty that will lead to better professional outcomes for everyone involved in CISTAR. Further, by building diverse mentoring CISTAR networks, we will help preempt implicit and explicit bias that can isolate and undermine diverse students and junior faculty. When coupled with recruiting efforts and campus resources (e.g. Purdue’s Pipeline Center; Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies), we fully anticipate that we will reach our goal of creating a truly diverse and global community of CISTAR engineers. 

How will CISTAR develop a well-educated energy workforce?

CISTAR’s Workforce Development goal is to promote an inclusive community of highly trained, technically excellent researchers, learners, and teachers through competency-based education, best- practice mentoring, and growth in key professional skills. Activities will be organized in two key categories: pre-college education and University Education. The emphasis will be on development of new courses and certificates addressing energy and the role of light hydrocarbons, and engaging students in relevant research. CISTAR will also contribute to their well-rounded professional formation though workshops on communications, ethics, and entrepreneurship.

What role will graduate and undergraduate students play in CISTAR?

The Center will broadly recruit undergraduate students to develop systems-level competencies in CISTAR research and encourage interest in graduate studies. Core undergraduates will serve as CISTAR Fellows and will be engaged in special educational opportunities such as Cross-Institutional Multi-disciplinary Coursework and Certificate in Light Hydrocarbon Research. Undergraduate Fellows will be mentored by graduate Fellows and faculty, exposed to intrapreneurial thinking in the research enterprise, and offered industrial and international research opportunities. Non-Fellow students will also participate in CISTAR research in an eight-week summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at Purdue.

How will CISTAR engage pre-college students?

CISTAR Pre-College Education objectives are to stimulate interest in engineering careers at the middle and high school levels and to strengthen pathways to promote the participation of female and URM students in engineering at the college level. Among the activities planned are Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) – an eight week summer program for middle and high school teachers; Young Scholar Summer Research - a six-week summer CISTAR research project across all five campuses for competitively selected high school students; and zipTripsTM - the development of a cross-institutional virtual trip on the grand challenge topic of Energy for Our Growing World to include emerging energy technologies such as biofuels, solar energy, nuclear energy, as well as fossil fuels and shale as a bridge fuel.

Will CISTAR have an international outlook/impact?

Yes, CISTAR has relationships with several European and Asian research institutions including the Fritz-Haber Institute, the Max Plank Institute in Europe and A*STAR in Singapore. CISTAR seeks to expand upon these relationships and engage other international research organizations to fulfill its mission of having a positive and environmentally sustainable impact on a global scale.


[1] See the National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center Association website.