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Single-Step Methane to Liquid Fuels

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Bio-GTL: Direct and Indirect Paths of Methane Activation and Conversion to Biofuels
Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$3,000,000
Location: 
Cambridge, MA
Project Term: 
02/03/2014 to 06/30/2017
Project Status: 
ALUMNI
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 
Natural gas can be found in abundance throughout the United States, and is often used for heating, cooking, and electrical power generation. Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, an energy-rich compound not widely used for transportation. Currently, there are no commercially viable biological approaches to convert methane into liquid fuel, and synthetic approaches are expensive and inefficient at small scales. To take advantage of the country's remote, off-shore natural gas resources, new biological processes that use special microorganisms called "biocatalysts" are needed to transform methane into liquid fuel. These small-scale processes could be carbon neutral or better, providing a clear environmental advantage over traditional fuels.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
The Bioinformatics and Metabolic Engineering Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by Prof. Greg Stephanopoulos will develop a comprehensive process to directly convert methane into a usable transportation fuel in a single step. MIT's unique technologies integrate methane activation with fuel synthesis, two distinct processes required to convert methane that are typically performed separately. Today, activating methane prior to converting it to useful fuel is a high-temperature, energy-intensive process. MIT's unique approach would use nitrate instead of oxygen to oxidize the methane, which could increase the energy efficiency of methane activation and ultimately convert it to fuel. Further, MIT will investigate the use of zeolite catalysts that have the potential to activate methane and convert it to methanol at very high efficiencies.
Potential Impact: 
If successful, MIT's technology will dramatically improve the efficiency of methane activation and synthesis, potentially transforming the landscape of natural gas utilization for production of liquid fuels.
Security: 
An improved bioconversion process could create cost-competitive liquid fuels that would significantly reduce the demand for foreign sources of oil.
Environment: 
This technology would allow for utilization of small-scale natural gas resources and help reduce emissions associated with the production of petroleum substitutes.
Economy: 
Expanding U.S. natural gas resources via bioconversion to liquid fuels could contribute tens of billions of dollars to the nation's economy while reducing or stabilizing transport fuel prices.
Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Marc von Keitz
Project Contact: 
Prof. Gregory Stephanopoulos
Partners
Harvard University
Tufts University
Release Date: 
9/19/2013