Unconventional Chemistry for Unconventional Natural Gas

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Science  19 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6105, pp. 340-342
DOI: 10.1126/science.1226840

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Making most of our fuels and chemicals from fossil hydrocarbons is unsustainable. However, until costeffective renewable sources are developed, natural gas could provide a secure economical alternative to petroleum. Proven reserves of natural gas have doubled in the last decade (1), mainly from increases in “unconventional” gas found with shale (shale gas), coal (coal bed methane), and in low-permeability “tight” sandstones (tight gas) (see the first figure). Today, because it is not easy to convert methane into heavier molecules, natural gas (composed largely of methane) is mostly burned for heating and electrical power generation; a tiny fraction is used in vehicles. Cost-effective conversion of natural gas into higher-value chemical intermediates and liquid products could reduce our need for oil and help lower its shipping costs, which are higher than those of petroleum or coal on an energy-delivered basis. In addition, such processes might recover the large quantities of gas now flared or vented from fossil reservoirs (2).