Engineers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have been selected to help lead a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation engineering research center aimed at developing new mobile technologies for converting natural gas into transportation fuels near rural natural gas sites.

The ability to convert natural gas into fuels could help the United States secure its energy independence, lower the nation’s energy costs and potentially provide a lower carbon footprint to a future sustainable energy economy. The project’s leaders estimate that their technologies could also inject $20 billion per year into the U.S. economy through the creation of new businesses and the development of a next-generation shale workforce.

The new Center for Innovative and Strategic Alkane Resources (CISTAR) will develop innovative catalysts, separation processes and process systems that convert alkanes — hydrocarbons including methane, ethane and propane — into more valuable liquid fuels, including gasoline and diesel fuels. To better leverage the natural gas sector’s surplus in lighter hydrocarbon gases, CISTAR plans to build small, modular and mobile processing units for small well sites in rural areas.

Joan Brennecke, a professor in UT Austin’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, and Fabio Ribeiro of Purdue University will lead the center, with additional partners at Northwestern University, the University of New Mexico and the University of Notre Dame. CISTAR will be located at Purdue University, but research will occur at all of the universities involved. UT Austin will receive $3.2 million from the NSF funding for its research efforts.

“Our main focus is to try and take these lighter hydrocarbon gases — the ethane, propane, butane and other gases — and convert them into liquid fuels closer to the well head with portable units,” Brennecke said. “Because the entire process would happen at or near the natural gas well sites, we anticipate substantial benefits to the environment and local economies throughout the United States.”

The center comes as Brennecke joins the UT Austin engineering faculty. She was recruited by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s new Governor’s University Research Initiative grant program, which is aimed at bringing the best and brightest researchers to Texas.

“Thanks to Joan’s vision and expertise — and to Gov. Abbott’s help in recruiting her to Texas — UT Austin engineering is able to serve as a national leader in this area,” said Sharon L. Wood, dean of the Cockrell School. “The mobile technologies that will be developed at CISTAR could have a profound impact on the oil and gas industry and also on local economies — with the potential to create jobs and benefit numerous communities in Texas.”

Along with Brennecke, the UT Austin team includes David Allen, Thomas Edgar, Benny Freeman and Mark Stadtherr of the Cockrell School and Sheila Olmstead of the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The researchers will focus on developing materials, technologies and processes for separating reactants and products, minimizing environmental impacts and testing integrated system analyses.

Typically, these light hydrocarbon gases are transported from well sites to large-scale refineries where they are turned into polypropylene and polyethylene (plastics), accruing costs and an environmental footprint along the way.

The CISTAR approach could decrease the amount of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, while reducing chilled and pressurized trucking of light hydrocarbons and simplifying transportation of fuels to end users. But first, Brennecke said, the researchers must address the scientific and technical challenges around developing new chemistries that can separate and convert gas into liquid fuel on a small scale.

As part of the grant, CISTAR will also oversee workforce development efforts, including training a new hydrocarbon workforce to work at the well sites, as well as engage in educational outreach at all CISTAR university sites.

CISTAR has attracted industry partners that will support and participate in the research, including ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell, Clariant, Shell, Honeywell/UOP, BP, Air Liquide and others. Within the next five to seven years, CISTAR leaders hope to commercialize their technologies.

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cover of Texas Engineering magazine with group of students
cover of Texas Engineering magazine with group of students