Opportunity: Making gasoline from natural gas rather than oil could cut its cost in half. Such a technology could also help make plastics far cheaper. While oil costs around $100 a barrel, natural gas sells in the U.S. for the equivalent of about $20 a barrel and is likely to remain much cheaper than oil for some time: it is estimated to be between two and six times more abundant than oil, and technologies like hydrofracking have led to a surge of production from unconventional sources like the Marcellus Shale in the eastern United States. Equally important, natural gas is more evenly distributed around the world than petroleum. The United States has ample supplies thanks to shale deposits, but so do China, many parts of Europe and South America, Australia, and South Africa. Making gasoline and commodity chemicals from natural gas rather than petroleum could help free the rest of the world from the political and economic stranglehold of the large oil-exporting nations.
Innovation: The goal of Siluria, a Silicon Valley startup fueled with $63.5 million in venture funding, is both audacious and simple: create a process that efficiently uses natural gas, rather than petroleum, to make ethylene and gasoline. The challenge is the chemistry. It’s possible to use catalysts to make these products out of methane (the main ingredient in natural gas), but an efficient industrial process has eluded chemical engineers for decades.
Siluria thinks it can succeed where others have failed, not because it understands the chemistry better but because it has ways to rapidly make and screen potential catalysts. The company built an automated system that can quickly synthesize hundreds of different catalysts at a time and then test how well they convert methane into ethylene.
It works by varying both what catalysts are made of and their microscopic structure. Making a catalyst in, say, the shape of a nanowire changes the way it interacts with methane, and this can transform a useless combination of elements into an effective one.
Siluria says the catalysts produced at its pilot plant in Menlo Park, California, have performed well enough to justify building two larger demonstration plants—one across San Francisco Bay in Hayward that will make gasoline, and one in Houston that will make ethylene. The company hopes to prove that the technology will work at a commercial scale and can be plugged into existing refineries and chemical plants.
Siluria can’t tell you exactly how it’s solved the problem that stymied chemists for decades—if indeed it has. Because of the nature of its throw-everything-at-the-wall approach, it doesn’t know precisely how its new catalysts work. All it knows is that the process appears to.