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Cleaner, Greener Energy

Honeywell company UOP and USC will develop technology to produce cleaner-burning fuels from carbon dioxide.

By Elisa Wiefel
December 1, 2007

Cleaner, Greener Energy

UOP LLC, a Honeywell company, announced that it will partner with the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute to develop and commercialize new technology to transform carbon dioxide into clean-burning alternative fuels.

USC developed fundamental chemistry to transform carbon dioxide to methanol or dimethyl ether, two potentially cleaner-burning alternatives to traditional transportation fuels, thereby reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas known to contribute to global warming.

Nobel Laureate and USC College Distinguished Professor George Olah, director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, his colleague G.K. Surya Prakash and their team of researchers have developed fundamental chemistry that could aid in the improved production of methanol and/or dimethyl ether from a variety of sources such as natural gas, coal and carbon dioxide.

Olah holds the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry in USC College, and Prakash is holder of the George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry and professor of chemistry.

Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of combustion of any carbon-containing material, is a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. However, based on the chemistry developed at USC and the collaborative efforts of UOP and USC to develop industrial processes now under way, CO2 could become a major feedstock for alternative fuels.

The agreement grants UOP exclusive access rights for commercialization of technology and intellectual property developed by USC researchers for production of methanol, dimethyl ether and other chemicals from undesirable carbon dioxide. UOP and USC will jointly work on developing a commercially viable process.

This agreement could have a significant impact on global warming by making future clean energy technologies available to the UOP roster of clients, including major petroleum refining companies. Moreover, this agreement could pave the way toward the practical implementation of the Methanol Economy™, a concept that involves the production and use of methanol on a massive scale.

Pioneered by Olah, the Methanol Economy™ is a conceptualized future economy in which methanol will increasingly supplement fossil fuels.

Methanol (or methyl alcohol, CH3OH) is a superb fuel in combustion engines and fuel cells, a convenient material for storing and transporting energy and an important chemical feedstock.

Olah advocates the use of methanol as a ubiquitous fuel and feedstock. Methanol is a convenient alternative to hydrogen and can be put into widespread use without having to first overcome the tremendous infrastructure challenges that handling, storing and transporting hydrogen represent. Hydrogen, in contrast to methanol, is highly volatile and dangerously explosive when mixed with air.

“The development of this technology could have significant impact on global energy security and global warming by converting carbon dioxide into useful products and making new clean fuel technologies available to UOP customers worldwide,” Olah said.

“UOP already has commercial technology that uses methanol as a key intermediate in petrochemicals production,” said UOP President and CEO Carlos Cabrera. “We believe methanol can also be a viable option for transportation fuels in the future. The partnership between UOP and USC is aimed at achieving the breakthroughs needed to make this happen.”

Methanol is a light, colorless, flammable liquid frequently used to produce other intermediate chemicals, which are then used to produce products like plastics, plywood and paints. It is also used on a limited basis as a fuel for internal combustion engines.

Methanol is liquid at normal temperatures, allowing it to be stored easily. It is easy to reform into hydrogen or dimethyl ether, the latter of which is a diesel fuel, making it a viable alternative fuel source.

“All along, our goal has been to foster a long-term, collaborative relationship with an industrial partner who understood our motivations and could realize our vision of making maximum societal impact with the science developed at USC,” said Robert Aniszfeld, who led the negotiations with UOP on behalf of the Loker Institute in his role as associate director.

“Partnering with UOP was a strategic decision, given UOP’s proven track record, roster of clients and strong management team,” he added. “We are enthusiastic about working with UOP now, and in the future, to improve the technology and bring methanol to the mainstream, with the additional goal of making significant reductions in man-made global carbon dioxide emissions.”

The Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute and USC Stevens Institute for Innovation teams facilitated the negotiations.

“The agreement between USC and UOP is a shining example of how the strategic partnership can broaden the societal benefit of academic research, setting the stage for meaningful impact on our world,” said Ed Beres, senior licensing associate for the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation.

Under Olah, the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute has become the world’s leading research center in the area of hydrocarbon energy, including organic, polymer and materials chemistry. The institute pursues environmentally sustainable development of alternative fuels based on renewable feedstocks. Since its inception, the institute has trained more than 500 doctoral and postdoctoral fellows representing all corners of the world.