The Department of Energy (DOE) announced recently that MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering will receive $900,000, the first grant made to the Institute under the MIT/University of Alaska partnership formed in May 1997.
The grant -- part of a $2.5 million grant that will be shared by MIT, the University of Alaska, the University of Houston, the University of Missouri at Rolla and the University of Illinois at Chicago -- will be used for the development of a technology to turn natural gas into a cleaner-burning liquid fuel.
Once the technology has been developed, it will make it possible to utilize the wealth of natural gas on Alaska's North Slope, which until now has been economically unfeasible to transport to the continental United States. Officials at DOE and British Petroleum/Amoco, the industrial advisor to the university alliance, anticipate that the new technology will cut the cost of converting natural gas to a liquid fuel by more than 25 percent.
"MIT-developed technologies have had a major impact on the economy of Massachusetts and Silicon Valley. The MIT/University of Alaska partnership focuses on creating technologies that can help people in rural areas generate income which will improve their standard of living as well," said Professor Thomas W. Eagar, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE).
The liquid fuel is also expected to provide cleaner fuel for automobiles, as well as for diesel-engine trucks, which must comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's clean air standards by 2004.
Researchers hope to create an electroceramic membrane, a solid-state device that would separate oxygen from the air and use it to convert natural gas into liquid hydrocarbons.
DMSE will focus on designing ceramic-to-metal seals and improving the transport properties of the ceramic membrane.
MIT's partnership with the University of Alaska was established to encourage the creation of new technologies that will make possible the profitable and environmentally sound development of raw materials in Alaska, with the hope that these technologies will create jobs for people living in the remotest areas of the state.
The second grant to MIT under the partnership, expected later this summer, will go to Sloan's Automotive Lab for work on designing a cleaner-burning diesel engine.
BP Amoco, which owns 60 percent of Alaska's natural gas reserves, has pledged a $70 million investment to build a gas-to-liquid pilot plant employing the technologies developed under the partnership.
Gas-to-liquid technology differs from liquefied natural gas processing. Rather than cooling natural gas until it turns into a liquid, gas-to-liquid technologies chemically change the natural gas molecules, breaking them apart and recombining them with oxygen to form a product called synthesis gas. Synthesis gas, in turn, can be chemically converted into different types of hydrocarbon products, including clean-burning transportation fuels.
Two existing gas-to-liquid plants -- one in Malaysia owned by Shell and one owned by Louisiana Exxon -- are both temporarily shut down for economic reasons having to do with currently low oil prices. The new process developed under the MIT/University of Alaska program should make the gas-to-liquid fuel competitive over a wider range of crude oil price fluctuations.
A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 33).