Monday, August 18, 2008

Synfuels converts natural gas to gasoline to cash


The World Bank estimates that some 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas are flared at oil fields annually, adding 400 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere — just because it’s cheaper to burn it than transport it. But Synfuels, a startup with a new chemical process, thinks it can convert natural gas into gasoline efficiently, allowing companies to economically tap the natural gas they usually burn off. Cheaply converting the gaseous fuel into a liquid one could allow oil companies to use existing pipelines to move the fuel to market. Already, wealthy, oil-rich investors are interested; Synfuels got $28.5 million from Kuwaiti AREF Energy Holding Co., Technology Review reports.

The idea isn’t new — the Fischer-Tropsch process has been used widely for decades to convert coal and methane into syngas and fuel. And earlier this month Rentech said it had started producing an “ultra clean synthetic fuel,” from natural gas (coal will also be a feedstock) at a demonstration unit in Colorado using an advanced version of fischer tropsch. But Synfuel says it can do it better and cheaper than competitors.

Where the Fischer-Tropsch process can make a barrel of gasoline for about $35, Synfuels claims it can produce the same barrel for $25. The secret is a very efficient process that first “cracks” the natural gas into acetylene which is later converted into ethylene using a proprietary catalyst at an efficiency rate of 98 percent, the company claims.

Founded in 1999, Synfuels licenses its technology from Texas A&M University and has been fine tuning its process at a $50 million test facility in Texas since 2005. But the startup tells Technology Review’s Tyler Hamilton that it’s close to signing a deal for its first commercial plant, potentially near Kuwait City. The company estimates there are nearly 15,000 gas fields outside North America that could be served by plants using its process.

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