Spurred by the long-term prospects of cheap and abundant supplies of natural gas, Siluria, an early-stage San Francisco startup, has received $20 million in new funding to invent technology to convert methane—the main component of natural gas—into ethylene, a feedstock that is used in much of the world’s chemical production. If Siluria is successful—the technology is still confined to laboratory testing—it could transform the economics of producing various chemicals and plastics, and even fuels.
The new investment, led by Wellcome Trust, reflects hopes that the company, which previously had raised $13.3 million from a number of leading venture capital firms, can solve a problem that has outwitted researchers and chemical companies for decades: finding catalysts that will selectively get methane to react with oxygen to make ethylene. Using recently developed nanotechnology tools and rapidly screening techniques, Siluria says it has invented several groups of catalysts that seem to work, at least in the lab, and is optimizing those catalysts while it continues to search for additional ones. It plans to begin testing the catalysts in a pilot system next year.
The commercial logic of the plan is simple. The United States is awash with cheap gas. Meanwhile, ethylene, the world’s highest volume commodity chemical with a value of some $160 billion a year, is made from petroleum using “steam cracking” in which the long-chain hydrocarbons are thermally broken down—or cracked. Natural gas is far cheaper than oil, and, especially with the recent exploitation of shale deposits in the United States and elsewhere, the supplies of it are projected to last for decades. Thus, making ethylene from natural gas would not only provide a far cheaper route to various petrochemicals and even fuels, it could provide natural gas producers with a valuable outlet for their products, while reducing dependence on petroleum.