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It wasn’t that long ago where the United States imported much of its natural gas, but the tables have turned where the country is producing more than it can handle and is now exporting.

With this abundance of natural gas, there is now a need to develop ways to convert that form of energy into other practical uses.

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“With petroleum reserves in decline, natural gas production is destined to increase to help meet worldwide energy demands,” said Matthew Neurock, a chemical engineering professor in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “But petroleum – in addition to being used to make fuels – is also used to make ethylene, propylene and other building blocks used in the production of a wide range of other chemicals. We need to develop innovative processes that can readily make these chemical intermediates from natural gas.”

That is where the problem comes in. There are currently no cost-effective ways to do this. Methane, the principal component of natural gas, is fairly inert and requires high temperatures to activate its strong chemical bonds; so a practical conversion of methane to useful chemical intermediates has eluded chemists and engineers so far.

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For Neurock, that is the beginning of a challenge as he is now working with colleagues at Northwestern University to invent novel ways and catalytic materials to activate methane to produce ethylene.

Along those lines, they just published a paper in the online journal Nature Chemistry detailing the use of sulfur as a possible “soft” oxidant for catalytically converting methane into ethylene, a key “intermediate” for making chemicals, polymers, fuels and, ultimately, products such as films, surfactants, detergents, antifreeze, textiles and others.

“We show, through both theory – using quantum mechanical calculations – and laboratory experiments, that sulfur can be used together with novel sulfide catalysts to convert methane to ethylene, an important intermediate in the production of a wide range of materials,” Neurock said.

Chemists and engineers have attempted to develop catalysts and catalytic processes that use oxygen to make ethylene, methanol and other intermediates, but have had little success as oxygen is too reactive and tends to over-oxidize methane to common carbon dioxide.

Neurock said sulfur or other “softer” oxidants that have weaker affinities for hydrogen may be the answer, in that they can help to limit the over-reaction of methane to carbon disulfide. In the team’s process, methane reacts with sulfur over sulfide catalysts used in petroleum processes. Sulfur removes hydrogen from the methane to form hydrocarbon fragments, which subsequently react together on the catalyst to form ethylene.

Theoretical and experimental results indicate the conversion of methane and the selectivity to produce ethylene end up controlled by how strong the sulfur bonds to the catalyst. Using these concepts, the team explored different metal sulfide catalysts to ultimately tune the metal-sulfur bond strength in order to control the conversion of methane to ethylene.

Chemical companies consider methane a particularly attractive raw material because of the large reserves of natural gas in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

“The abundance of natural gas, along with the development of new methods to extract it from hidden reserves, offers unique opportunities for the development of catalytic processes that can convert methane to chemicals,” Neurock said. “Our finding – of using sulfur to catalyze the conversion of methane to ethylene – shows initial promise for the development of new catalytic processes that can potentially take full advantage of these reserves. The research, however, is really just in its infancy”

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