WVU researchers join national program to develop technologies to enhance natural gas utilization

Pictures of John Hu and Hanjin Tian

 John Hu and Hanjin Tian


West Virginia University has joined a national effort to turn natural gas into valuable products and do it at the well. This serves a real-world need for many production locations in the Marcellus Shale, especially those in West Virginia, where some shale gas resources are stranded without pipeline infrastructure, affecting access and price.

The University has joined the newest branch of the United States Department of Energy’s National Network of Manufacturing Institutes. The Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment institute, or RAPID, will focus on using advanced manufacturing to develop breakthrough technologies to boost the productivity and efficiency of some of industrial processes by 20 percent in the next five years.

“RAPID is fast-tracking research that will directly increase the productivity of industry manufacturing processes while simultaneously lowering energy costs, lowering capital equipment costs and making higher gains in overall efficiency,” said John Hu, Statler Chair in engineering in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and one of the lead researchers involved in the project.

DOE has asked the American Institute for Chemical Engineering to coordinate the new institute and bring together more than 130 partners from academia, industry, government laboratories and non-governmental organizations across the country. The team will leverage DOE’s $70 million contribution plus $70 million in private cost-share commitments from partners in the institute.

Hu and Hanjin Tian, assistant professor in the chemical and biomedical engineering department, will address two main questions: how to turn natural gas into more valuable chemicals and plastics using advanced manufacturing technologies and how to develop ways in which these processes can be conducted at the wellhead.

Remaking manufacturing

The abundance of natural gas in West Virginia has led to growth and opportunity for the state; however, much of the resource is “stranded.” Because of the geographic terrain of the state it is difficult to build pipelines to extract the resource to process it in a centralized location. In other areas of the country, natural gas is simply burned off because of the relatively low economic value associated with distributed and stranded resources.

Engineers can convert natural gas and other hydrocarbons into petrochemicals in a large refinery, but these processes are not as economical for smaller quantities of natural gas that are scattered throughout different geographical locations.

Using smaller, modular reactors may help address this problem. In modular manufacturing smaller reactors with innovation designs can be deployed to different locations and reassembled. These reactors can accelerate or intensify the chemical reactions resulting in significantly higher productivity and lower capital costs.

It is what Hu refers to as “1+1= 3.”

“One more way to gain even higher levels of productivity is to combine multiple complex processes such as mixing, reaction and separation into single steps,” he said. “This approach – called process intensification – could result in 10 times increase in the efficiency.”

Rakesh Gupta, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, likened the solution to restaurant catering.

“This research will develop technology necessary for mobile factories,” Gupta said. “It is similar to the way in which caterer is able to set up a mobile restaurant at an event with fewer staff and kitchen equipment, and is still able to provide large quantities of food in a short amount of time.

“WVU’s work here creates a direct link between research and stimulus of the economic outlook in both West Virginia and across the globe.”

For years WVU faculty members have worked on natural gas conversion technology research and translation into real manufacturing processes. The research of Hu and Tian, is an integral part of WVU’s Center for Innovation in Gas Research and Utilization and the WVU Energy Institute . Their work will now play a key role in RAPID’s On-Site Natural Gas Utilization focus area.

Faculty projects related to natural gas conversion to value-added products via process intensified modular production, such as plasma catalyst conversion of natural gas and micro-channel oxidative dehydrogeneration for olefin production, have already received strong interest from industrial partners.

Beyond economic gains, RAPID also provides valuable educational opportunities and instructional programs for undergraduate and graduate students who will be the engineers of the future. 

A team effort built on a reputation for excellence

WVU was invited to be part of the core team that began initial planning with the American Institute for Chemical Engineering more than 18 months ago, working closely with Darlene Schuster, a graduate of WVU’s chemical engineering department and director of the the the institute’s Center for Energy Initiatives and Institute for Sustainability.

“This partnership is a perfect example of the Connect, Collaborate and Innovate approach that we have been working hard to grow,” said Pradeep Fulay, associate dean for research in the Statler College. “Immediate interactions are very important, but in the next five to ten years we will see dividends from our collaborations within RAPID. It will open up a wealth of other opportunities that will expand on this effort.”

In addition to the work of Fulay’s office and Statler College, the WVU Research Corp. and WVU Energy Institute provided strong support to the projects proposed by WVU. In addition, the West Virginia Technology Park provided facilities and space.

“WVU has a unique opportunity to collaborate with a large group of institutions and companies,” said Fulay. “Our expertise is critical for the successful translation of industry research into process intensification.”

Path for the future

Through its National Network of Manufacturing Institutes DOE’s aim is to double U.S. energy productivity by 2030 through the development of public-private partnerships – each with specific areas of focus – all working toward securing America’s future through manufacturing innovation, education and collaboration.

RAPID is the 10th institute, and with its addition DOE and the American Institute for Chemical Engineering will determine specific research projects and form collaborative teams of academic institutions, companies and laboratories.

In addition to WVU, participating members include Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Tech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, University of Pittsburgh, Idaho National Laboratory, National Energy Technology Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dow, DuPont, ExxonMobil and Shell.

“Our investment in this cross-cutting technology is an investment in the future of manufacturing in the U.S.,” said David Friedman, DOE acting assistant secretary of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. “As we expand the Manufacturing USA network, we provide greater opportunities for businesses of all sizes to solve their toughest technology challenges and unleash major savings in energy-intensive sectors like oil and gas, pulp and paper-making and other industries.”



For more information on news and events in the West Virginia University Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources:

Email: EngineeringWV@mail.wvu.edu

Phone contacts:
College Relations office: 304-293-4086
Office of the Dean: 304-293-4157
Other College administrative and department offices: Administration