Texas Tech University’s Sheima Khatib, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, recently received a three-year, $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a new technology that will produce benzene from flared natural gas instead of petroleum.
“Benzene is used as feedstock in the manufacturing of multiple important products such as plastics, resins, adhesives, textiles, lubricants, dyes, detergents and pesticides,” Khatib said. “The U.S. is currently importing 15% of its benzene consumption, with a value of around $1 billion per year.
“The technology we’re developing aims to transform the marketplace in advanced manufacturing of benzene, and aromatics in general, to close the benzene supply gap. Benzene is traditionally produced by processes that use feedstock produced from petroleum refining, but we are exploring an alternative conversion process that instead uses domestically abundant shale gas for benzene production.”
One of the main challenges of utilizing the vast amounts of shale gas currently available in the U.S. is that the shale gas sources are so distributed geographically, and the gas itself has such a low value, that it is not viable to build pipelines to transport it to centralized processing facilities. Instead, the gas is being flared, contributing further to greenhouse emissions. However, the new technology Khatib is working on enables benzene production to happen on-site.
“The shale gas-to-benzene technology we are working on is ‘modular,’” Khatib said. “In other words, it is a smaller-scale technology, which drastically reduces infrastructure and processing costs. Most importantly, it can be built at the gas source, minimizing transportation-related challenges associated with natural gas. So, instead of transporting the gas from a well to a distant processing plant, we are implementing our modular conversion units at gas sources in remote locations where infrastructures for the transformation of gas-to-liquids and transportation do not currently exist.
“The modular conversion technology improves energy efficiency in manufacturing of value-added products from shale gas and can potentially lead to long-term economic and environmental benefits since it would place the U.S. in a position of exporting benzene and its derivatives while redirecting currently flared natural gas to the production of a chemical commodity.”
For this project, Khatib is working alongside Chau-Chyun Chen, the Jack Maddox Distinguished Engineering Chair in Sustainable Energy and a professor of chemical engineering. She also is partnering with researchers Rebecca Fushimi from Idaho National Laboratory, Robert Hart from Shepherd Chemical and Simon Bare from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in a joint effort to apply dynamic catalyst science tools to advance the design of new catalysts that are responsive and robust to the variable conditions inside the modular reactors.