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Electrochemical Non-Oxidative Deprotonation of Ethane

Intermediate temperature alkane upgrading

Idaho National Laboratory

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Technology Marketing Summary

A novel low-thermal-budget approach for the co-production of ethylene and hydrogen, this process involves feeding ethane to the anode in an electrochemical membrane reactor. Electricity separates protons (hydrogen ions) from the molecules, leaving ethylene, an unsaturated hydrocarbon that can be used to make polymers. 

Description
The shale gas boom in the United States has driven energy costs down and opened up new possibilities to the nation’s petrochemical manufacturers. Ethane, a major component of natural gas liquids, offers a simpler hydrocarbon to refine than oil. Once ethane is converted to ethylene, it becomes the primary building block of many plastics in advanced manufacturing.
 
This conversion can be done thermally, the same way as it is with oil, at temperatures of up to 850 C. But a team of Idaho National Laboratory researchers has hit upon an electrochemical process that could eliminate the need for high-energy steam cracking, creating synthetic fuels and chemical building blocks while using 65 percent less energy and producing up to 98 percent less carbon dioxide.
 
The new process involves feeding ethane to the anode in an electrochemical membrane reactor. Electricity separates protons (hydrogen ions) from the molecules, leaving ethylene, an unsaturated hydrocarbon that can be used to make polymers. Meanwhile, the protons migrate through a dense electrolyte to the cathode, where they combine with electrons to form hydrogen gas.
 
The ethylene on the anode can be further refined into higher hydrocarbons, including gasoline, diesel, lubricants and wax, depending on what coupling catalyst is applied and at what point the reaction is terminated.
 
Published patent application: 
https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2018170252A1/en?oq=WO2018%2f170252+
 
Benefits
The electrochemical process has the ability to overcome thermodynamic limitations, allowing operation at the lower temperature: 400 C compared to 850 C for steam cracking routes. Coking, side reactions and catalyst deactivation can be drastically mitigated. Further, electrochemical membrane reactors can push the overall reaction toward practical deployment through fast removal of hydrogen.
 
Typically, the steam cracking of ethane has a conversion rate of 70 percent, with ethylene yields of about 50 percent. The energy-intensive steam cracking process is estimated to contribute 60 percent of final product cost and two-thirds of the manufacturing carbon footprint.
 
The INL electrochemical non-oxidative process offers an alternative that capitalizes on an abundant domestic resource. Compared to industrial steam cracking, the process uses 65 percent less energy and can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 72 percent. Using a noncarbon source of electricity — nuclear, hydro, wind or solar — could cut the carbon footprint up to 98 percent compared with steam cracking. If the process were powered by a renewable source and the captured hydrogen was incorporated into fuel cells, there would be a net gain in process energy.
 
The declining cost of electricity makes electrochemical refining more economically feasible. Theoretically, if the process were to be powered by a renewable source and the captured hydrogen were to be incorporated into fuel cells, there is net gain in process energy. From a CO2 standpoint, using a noncarbon source of electricity — nuclear, hydro, wind or solar — could cut the carbon footprint down to 2 percent of traditional production methods.
 
Applications and Industries
Alkane upgrading; 
Hydrogen production
More Information

RSC Publication

https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2018/ee/c8ee00645h

Patent Publication

https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2018170252A1/en?oq=WO+2018%2f170252

Technology Status
Technology IDDevelopment StageAvailabilityPublishedLast Updated
BA-957DevelopmentAvailable01/14/201901/14/2019

Contact INL About This Technology

To: Ryan Bills<ryan.bills@inl.gov>