The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and its National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) are currently focusing on the development of materials, equipment, and processes to enable flared, vented, or otherwise stranded natural gas to be “upcycled” to more transportable products with a higher market value. Successful technologies developed in this area will be integrated into small-scale modular systems that can be utilized on a wellpad scale as an effective means of upcycling associated natural gas that would otherwise be flared to value added products that continue to improve the economics and environmental impact of oil production.
Natural gas that is unable to be produced for technical or economic reasons leaves it “stranded” beyond the reach of the energy marketplace. There are several types of stranded gas, but one type is associated natural gas that is produced along with oil but does not have access to a gas pipeline. This gas is typically vented, reinjected, or combusted in a flare, due to the absence of sufficient takeaway capacity to sell the associated natural gas to downstream end users. The price ratio of natural gas to oil is the primary factor in the decision to discard the gas in service of producing the oil. Gas produced along with tight oil in West Texas or North Dakota is a good example of stranded associated gas.
DOE has ongoing research activities that address the development of technical solutions for several of areas of stranded gas, including chemical upcycling of associated natural gas that would otherwise be wasted. Further discussion on this, and a variety of stranded gas resource types and concepts for their development, can be found here.
Technologies developed as part of this effort will need to demonstrate proof-of-concept of modular process-intensified approaches to enable remote chemical processing at distributed upstream locations in the natural gas supply chain. Successful efforts in this area should stimulate follow-on research and development of advanced component fabrication that achieves economically-favorable commercialization at a small scale. Solving these challenges will require bringing together researchers from multiple disciplines to develop new technologies able to reduce gas flaring and exploit excess natural gas during oil and gas production, gas processing, and transmission.
DOE/NETL’s natural gas upcycling initiative aims to make natural gas upcycling commercially viable through multidisciplinary approaches enabling technological advancement across materials, equipment, and processes such as:
Process Intensification in chemical engineering is generally defined as a significant reduction in the size of equipment, energy requirements, or the waste generated while still achieving synthesis of the desired final product. This simultaneously makes reactions safer, improves the economics, increases the versatility of application, and reduces the environmental impact of a chemical conversion. Any number of technological approaches can be applied to achieve this goal including, nano-scale engineering of catalysts to improve reaction kinetics, synergistic combination of individual process steps, and the use of electromagnetic and ultrasonic energy sources to more precisely activate chemical bonds.
The application of Process Intensification on the chemical upcycling of natural gas can enable an economically-favorable approach for the chemical conversion of natural gas at the modular scale needed for deployment at individual wells. This gives operators a more environmentally-friendly use for associated gas while also providing them with a more valuable product to sell.