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Roy Periana

Looking to the Fuel of the Future

Scripps Florida Professor Roy Periana and his lab colleagues tackle energy and materials research. What can we do reduce our dependence on limited oil reserves? How do we make the world more sustainable? How do we make production of energy and materials more efficient? Proposed answers have ranged from installing solar panels to using clean coal technology.

To be economically competitive, any carbon source that replaces oil will have to produce fuels and materials more cheaply and be easy to store and transport, Periana said. He believes the future source of fuel and materials could be natural gas. “There is no reason we could not move from petroleum to a natural gas-based economy,” he said. “We just need new chemistry.”

Periana grew up in British Guiana, now known simply as Guyana—a country next to Venezuela, slightly smaller than Idaho and the only country in the Caribbean that is not an island. According to the British customs of the time, he attended public school, where he wore a uniform (with tie, despite being in the tropics). He showed a bent for science—especially chemistry—early on.

“When I was a kid, you had to make your own things,” he said. “I made my own Bunsen burner for my own childhood laboratory.”

He also was something of a mischief-maker, keen on setting off his own handmade smoke bombs just to annoy the faculty.

“I designed extra-long fuses so I could be very far away when they went off,” Periana remembered with a smile.

His interest in higher education brought him to the United States, where he graduated with a B.S. from the University of Michigan and then went to work for Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan. He remembers the state with fondness and takes his family on vacation there whenever possible.

When he decided to pursue his Ph.D., he went to the University of California, Berkeley. He quickly dove into the entrepreneurial world of Northern California’s Silicon Valley as a co-founder of Catalytica Advanced Technologies, where his interest in doing something new with natural gas continued to blossom.

In contrast to methane (the major component of natural gas), methanol, which is a liquid, can be stored relatively easily and hauled around by truck. A major commodity in itself, methanol is also readily convertible into fuels and chemicals by commercially available technology. However, current methanol production methods from methane are themselves energy-intensive, expensive and wasteful. “That’s because of the strong C-H bonds in methane,” he said.

To address these limitations, Periana and his colleagues recently devised a new and more efficient method with the potential to convert the major components found in natural gas into methanol and other alcohols—opening the door to cheaper, more abundant energy and materials with much lower emissions. The research was published earlier this year in the prestigious journal Science.

"We're trying to construct an entirely new petrochemical industry with natural gas at the foundation that doesn't exist in the world today," Periana said.

His breakthrough research uses clever chemistry and nontraditional materials to turn natural gas into liquid products at much lower temperatures than conventional methods.

"What we wanted were materials that are abundant and inexpensive that can carry out efficient chemistry with the C-H bonds of methane under practical conditions,” he said. “We also wanted to find materials that could convert methane as well as the other major components in natural gas, ethane and propane.”

Approaching the problem both theoretically and experimentally, the team hit on inexpensive metals known as main group elements, some of which are byproducts of refining certain ores. For example, one of the materials can be made from common lead dioxide, a synthetic compound used in the production of matches and fireworks.

“We uncovered a whole new class of inexpensive metals that reacts with C-H bonds and allows us to process methane and the other alkanes contained in natural gas, ethane and propane at about 180 degrees centigrade or lower—instead of the more than 500 degrees centigrade used in current processes,” he said. “This creates the potential to produce fuels and chemicals at an extraordinarily lower cost.”

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“We uncovered a whole new class of inexpensive metals that reacts with C-H bonds... This creates the potential to produce fuels and chemicals at an extraordinarily lower cost,” says Professor Roy Periana.