LLNL partnership with Calysta works to convert natural gas to liquid fuel

January 15, 2014 by Anne M Stark
Lawrence Livermore chemist Sarah Baker and engineer Josh Stolaroff examine an enzyme that they plan to use as a catalyst to convert methane to liquid fuel. Credit: Julie Russell/LLNL

In an effort to put to good use natural gas (methane) that might otherwise become pollution, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is collaborating with start-up company Calysta Energy on a new technology to convert natural gas to liquid fuel.

The process involves taking from oil and gas operations, and converting it to methanol that can be used as a fuel or converted to other useful chemicals. Often small amounts of natural gas produced at oil and gas operations are flared off or vented into the environment when the amount does not justify a pipeline to transport the gas.

"With this technology, we would have a small portable reactor that would convert natural gas to a liquid fuel," said Joshuah Stolaroff, the lead Lawrence Livermore scientist on the project. "The liquid is much more valuable, and transportable, than natural gas in its gaseous form. If the technology works well, it could give the United States a new option for using our large reserves of natural gas."

Biologically engineered enzymes, produced by Calysta, would be used as the catalyst for the conversion to . Enzymes have been used for years in the pharmaceutical industry, however, Stolaroff said their use in the energy sector has been limited.

"Calysta is seeing strong interest from a number of groups in this technology," said Josh Silverman, chief scientific officer and founder of Calysta Energy. "Our main focus is the biological conversion of methane as a route to extracting the most value from one of our most abundant domestic energy resources. We see a unique opportunity in partnering with LLNL to develop game-changing technology to advance the underlying biology."

Silverman said Calysta is interested in the partnership because of LLNL's technical capabilities in nanostructures, reactor technology and 3D printing of substrates in which the enzymes would lie on top.

Most chemical reactions of interest for a better clean energy economy are already routinely carried out in nature. These reactions include the conversion of sunlight to chemical energy, the transfer of carbon dioxide into and out of solution, the selective oxidation of hydrocarbons (including methane to methanol), the formation of carbon-carbon bonds (including methane to ethylene), and the formation and dissolution of silicon-oxygen bonds (including enhanced mineral weathering).

Conventional industrial approaches to mimic those natural processes require catalysts that will work in industrial conditions. Certain enzymes have been identified that carry out each of these reactions with high selectivity under mild conditions – a specialty of Calysta Energy.

"This presents an opportunity for industrial biocatalysis and biomimetics to fill the gap between current technology and natural capabilities," Stolaroff said. "We identified methane-to-methanol technologies as having an exciting market and environmental opportunity. Catalytic methane conversion at ambient conditions would have an application to the growing shale gas industry and associated methane emissions."

Stolaroff said natural gas mitigation strategies are also needed for a variety of sources, including oil and gas operations, coal mines, agriculture and organic waste, with a range of concentrations and characteristics. The only catalysts available to convert natural gas to other hydrocarbons at ambient temperature and pressure or from low-concentration streams are enzymes in certain type of bacteria.

"Harnessing these enzymes could greatly expand the range of methane sources that would be economic to mitigate and could have additional industrial applications," he said.

Explore further: Converting natural gas to liquid transportation fuels via biological organisms

Related Stories

Synthetic natural gas from excess electricity

January 6, 2014

"Power to gas" is a key concept when it comes to storing alternative energy. This process converts short-term excess electricity from photovoltaic systems and wind turbines into hydrogen. Combined with the greenhouse gas ...

NREL to help convert methane to liquid diesel

January 8, 2013

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will help develop microbes that convert methane found in natural gas into liquid diesel fuel, a novel approach that if successful could reduce ...

Recommended for you

WhatsApp vulnerable to snooping: report

January 13, 2017

The Facebook-owned mobile messaging service WhatsApp is vulnerable to interception, the Guardian newspaper reported on Friday, sparking concern over an app advertised as putting an emphasis on privacy.

US gov't accuses Fiat Chrysler of cheating on emissions

January 12, 2017

The U.S. government accused Fiat Chrysler on Thursday of failing to disclose software in some of its pickups and SUVs with diesel engines that allows them to emit more pollution than allowed under the Clean Air Act.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 15, 2014
Come on people. First they talk about using a small portable reactor to process gas that is flared off and then make grandiose statements:

"The liquid is much more valuable, and transportable, than natural gas in its gaseous form. If the technology works well, it could give the United States a new option for using our large reserves of natural gas."

Large volume gas streams (and I mean chemical process scale) would be more suited to standard chemical engineering principles. Liquids from natural gas that is otherwise flared would be low volume products and be lost in the noise.

Interested readers might look up the Wikipedia article Fischer-Tropsch process for examples of already commercial gas to liquids operations.

Nevertheless, it is a waste to flare waste gas and if the economics work out, then maybe these guys are on to something for this application only.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.