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Performer: University of Southern California
Award Number: FE0000435
Project Duration: 09/30/2009 – 12/31/2013
Total Award Value: $3,184,338.00
DOE Share: $2,547,470.00
Performer Share: $636,868.00
Technology Area: Coal and Coal/Biomass to Liquids
Key Technology:

Project Description

The USC Methanol Economy project will develop technology to convert anthropogenic CO2 from fuels combustion and natural gas into methanol. Methanol can be used as an internal combustion engine fuel, fuel cell fuel and a chemical precursor to di-methyl ether (DME). DME is a high-cetane diesel, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) substitute. Methanol can be used as a feedstock for the production of transportation fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel. Since methanol is a liquid at ambient temperatures, it is a convenient medium for storing and transporting energy. Methanol is also a useful feedstock for the production of chemicals such as ethylene, propylene and formaldehyde, which are used in the plastics, chemical, plywood, paint, and textile industries.

Two methanol production methods of interest are direct conversion of methane (CH4) (the main component of natural gas) to methanol, and bi-reforming of CH4 and related hydrocarbons to methanol. The USC research team will investigate the direct pathway using electrophilic bromination of CH4 to methyl bromide followed by hydrolysis to produce methanol. Solid acidic catalysts for the bromination of CH4 will be engineered toward improving selectivity and reducing coke formation. USC will study the bi-reforming reaction for the production of syngas (a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide that can be further converted to liquid fuels) by screening suitable alkali oxides, alkaline oxides, and metal oxides as catalysts. The produced syngas will have a hydrogen-to-carbon monoxide molar ratio of 2:1, which is appropriate for methanol production. The team will also study conversion of methanol to DME. The other area of focus is the electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide to either syngas or formic acid. Formic acid is a good source of hydrogen and a good fuel for fuel cells.

USC will also explore methods for efficiently capturing CO2 from power plants and other industrial sources for utilization in bi-reforming. In collaboration with on-going research at NETL, researchers will formulate, screen, and evaluate the use of regenerable amine and related sorbents on nanostructured supports, which can provide structural integrity and increased CO2 absorption capacity.

Project Benefits

Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are composed of hydrocarbons with varying ratios of carbon and hydrogen. Consumption of hydrocarbons derived from fossil fuels is integral to modern day life in the U.S. Hydrocarbons are used as fuels and raw materials in the transportation sector and in many industrial production processes including chemicals, petrochemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and rubber. Fossil-fuel based hydrocarbons are considered non-renewable because they are not replaced except on geological time scales. The byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion include carbon dioxide (CO2) and water; anthropogenic or human-generated CO2 is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that is believed to contribute to climate change.

Despite their wide use and high demand over the past two centuries, and significant improvements in technologies and environmental performance, fossil fuels present a number of disadvantages, including their finite reserves and contribution to climate change. In addition, the U. S. has a need for alternative sources of liquid fuels for transportation markets to displace imported petroleum. DOE and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) are sponsoring fundamental research on novel technologies to convert gaseous fuels and/or CO2 emitted from fossil fuels combustion to liquid fuels. NETL is partnering with the University of Southern California (USC) to develop a process called bi-reforming for converting natural gas and CO2 into liquid fuels such as methanol and di-methyl ether (DME) that may eventually be supplementary to current liquid fuel sources.

The development of methods for using abundant domestic resources together with recycled CO2 captured from fuels combustion for the production of fuels and chemicals will reduce industrial impacts on climate change as well as provide methods to more efficiently utilize domestic resources for energy and raw materials. The application of these technologies in the U.S. will help reduce the nation’s dependence on imported fossil fuels and will increase energy security.

Goals and Objectives

The goal of this project is to develop novel technologies to produce methanol and DME energy carriers from abundant domestic resources that may reduce U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels such as petroleum, and to develop efficient methods for using recycled CO2 from fuels combustion along with other hydrocarbon sources to produce liquid fuels and materials.

Contact Information

Federal Project Manager Jason Hissam:
Technology Manager Jenny Tennant:
Principal Investigator :


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