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Northwestern Receives Methane Challenge Grant from Dow

February 1, 2008 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University has received a research grant of $3.35 million from the Dow Chemical Company over the first three years as part of the company's 2007 Dow Methane Challenge. The challenge was initiated by Dow last March to identify collaborators and approaches in the area of methane conversion to chemicals. Methane is the major component of natural gas.

Approximately 100 proposals from around the world were received in response to Dow's open solicitation, representing top universities, institutes and companies. Ten finalists were asked to submit detailed, confidential proposals. From those, judges selected the teams led by Northwestern and Cardiff University, in Wales, to receive the challenge grants.

Methane is particularly attractive as a raw material because of the presence of large reserves of natural gas in many parts of the world, but the technology for the conversion of these reserves to chemicals and liquid fuels remains elusive. Dow's goal is to develop technologies to take natural gas and produce the intermediates that form the foundation of today's chemical industry.

Northwestern's team is led by Tobin J. Marks, the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Research Professor in Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of materials science and engineering. "It is remarkable that a molecule as simple and abundant as methane should present such an obstacle to conventional catalytic methodologies," said Marks. "Clearly, unconventional, science-based approaches will be required to produce catalysts with the necessary activity and selectivity."

Methane has resisted the attempts of chemists during the last century to directly react and selectively form other chemicals. By bringing together its chemists and chemical engineers with the teams led by Northwestern and Cardiff, Dow hopes to discover revolutionary chemical processes.

Mastery of methane chemistry would provide a completely new foundation for production of chemicals and liquid fuels, bringing an alternative to petroleum in these applications and enabling the use of plentiful, though often remote, natural gas that today is uneconomical to transport to market. It could also reduce the flaring of gas associated with petroleum production and might even provide a means to upgrade landfill gas.

While Northwestern and Cardiff are the homes of the team leaders, both teams have sought expertise outside their university communities and are multi-institutional, multidisciplinary teams. Marks' team includes five Northwestern colleagues, two scientists from Argonne National Laboratory and a collaborator from the University of Virginia.
Topics: Research, University News