Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources will transform natural gas

Thanvi Thodati

A new, cleaner transportation fuel technology is being developed by UT faculty at the new Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources, called CISTAR. The researchers are working to transform natural gas into an effective transitional form of energy, or “bridge fuel.”

Energy in the United States relies heavily on fossil fuels such as coal and crude oil, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it will take well over half a century for renewable resources to replace them as primary energy sources.

“We need a bridge fuel to use until that time,” said Joan Brenneck, CISTAR co-lead and chemical engineering professor. “Our goal is to develop and provide the technology so that light hydrocarbons can be used in the most environmentally responsible way to meet the liquid fuel needs of the U.S. population.”

CISTAR seeks to develop processing units that will be used at natural gas well sites to turn hydrocarbon gases, such as methane, into liquid transportation fuel. According to Brennecke, these technologies would offer a number of environment and efficiency related benefits.

Compared to coal and crude oil, hydrocarbons have a high energy content per carbon atom, allowing them to produce more energy while releasing less carbon dioxide, Brennecke added. CISTAR technologies would reduce emission of by-product pollutants such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides, Brennecke said. These pollutants are damaging to both the environment and human health, according to the EPA.

Brennecke said that these technologies also produce hydrogen gas as a by-product, which can be used as a clean energy source itself. Additionally, CISTAR technologies would eliminate the transportation of hydrocarbons and related energy use.

The project began on Oct. 1, and research is already underway, according to Brennecke. UT-Austin researchers are collaborating with Purdue University, University of New Mexico, University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University on the CISTAR project. The project was given a five-year grant, potentially renewable for an additional five years. Five other UT-Austin faculty members will be working alongside Brennecke on the CISTAR project, and according to CISTAR researcher Benny Freeman, who will be supervising student researchers, their team will include chemical engineering doctoral students and eventually, undergraduate research assistants.

Freeman’s research group will work to design separation membranes that separate gases involved in the process of turning hydrocarbons into liquid fuel, along with creating pilot manufacturing devices and a testbed for these membranes.

“The membranes studied in this research will have applicability to other applications, beyond those of interest to CISTAR, such as oxygen removal from air for blanketing aircraft fuel tanks,” Freeman said.

While the overall focus is to turn natural gas into a bridge fuel, UT researchers said that CISTAR developments will sustain their utility well into the future, even after the country completes the transition to a primarily renewable energy system.

“We anticipate that the scientific advances and some components of the technology developed at CISTAR will have application in a wide variety of sectors, ranging from polymers to consumer products,” Brennecke said. “Even after CISTAR technology is no longer needed to transform light hydrocarbons from natural gas into liquid transportation fuels, the benefits of this project will continue.”