Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation
School of Chemical Engineering


Chemicals Process

Improving the Use of Methane for Chemical Products

At last count, Nature appears to have provided over 200 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of gaseous fossil hydrocarbons. Natural gas can be found almost everywhere and for much of the 21st century methane and other light alkane gases will be widely available at low cost in many countries. Further, methane can be produced renewably from biomass. Use of natural gas for electricity generation and heat provides a cost effective pathway away from coal towards carbon-free long-term solutions. Additionally, using gas rather than oil and coal for chemical production offers a means of decreasing the carbon dioxide emissions from chemical production.

Almost all industrial chemical processes of natural gas today were developed in the 1940’s and involve heating the alkanes to high temperature in the presence of water vapor. Steam cracking at short reaction times forms ethylene and propylene, the world’s most important commodity organic chemicals, or, at longer reaction times, reforms to make synthesis gas used to produce methanol and heavy hydrocarbons. The old processes consume the largest quantity of energy in the organic chemical industry and produce several hundred million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

The Dow Centre is evaluating two pathways to advanced methane utilization. The Dow Centre team has developed a novel partial oxidation chemistry for conversion of methane and other light alkanes to higher molecular weight olefins and oxygenates. It is building the overall conceptual process model to compare the estimated capital and operating costs to conventional technologies. Further, team members are working with the AIBN to examine the technoeconomics of a biological methane fermentation approach and compare it to the chemical process. 

Rethinking the Value Proposition of Nuclear Reactors

Nuclear power is the only proven technology that can cost-effectively provide the many tens of terawatts of base load electricity needed to assure a prospering global population. With hundreds of operating plants worldwide nuclear power is proven to be the safest and lowest cost carbon dioxide free technology. Unfortunately, leaving aside its generally negative image, in most western nations constructing and operating a nuclear power plant is too expensive compared to deploying fossil fuel based facilities. Nevertheless, China and Russia are presently ramping up their reliance on nuclear power as well as their nuclear science and technology infrastructure to dominate the global nuclear technology commercial market. Regardless of what western nations may or may not do, the rest of the world will increasingly use low cost nuclear power. As the finite fossil fuel resources become increasingly expensive, competing with nuclear powered chemical industries will become difficult. 

The Dow Centre is promoting a chemical industry initiative to identify specific opportunities for producing valuable chemical products using nuclear technology. The Centre is evaluating several potential chemical products that can be produced using nuclear radiation. The first targets are those that might be produced with small, low capital, gamma irradiation facilities using isotopes or spent fuel. The Centre is working to nurture a deliberate and strategic re-engagement with the chemical industry to reconsider nuclear technology that may benefit their long-term competitiveness, support global sustainability, and ensure prosperity and stability.

Sustainability through Advanced Materials

In collaboration with the Dow Chemical Company, the Centre is working on new chemical pathways to lower the cost and improve the properties of carbon fibres made from polyethylene, renewable cellulose and other biopolymers. 

Membrane fouling is a major barrier in critical applications for water treatment. The Dow Centre team in collaboration with UQ’s FIMLab is working to develop a novel low cost actively defouled membrane system for use in the food and dairy industry. 

Co-Sponsorship of Energy-Poverty Nexus Study

Identifying opportunities for innovation to provide sustainable solutions for the large numbers of people who will move out of poverty.

UQ is developing a multidisciplinary group under the UQ Energy Initiative to contribute to a set of exciting new projects focused on understanding how poverty and energy are interconnected in the developing world, including remote indigenous communities in Australia and providing sustainable energy solutions which are tailored to regions and societal conditions. The program involves modelling, analysis, data management, scenario and policy formulation and the development of engineering solutions that are reliable and affordable. All engineering solutions will be subject to a rigorous assessment in terms of their techno-economic, socio-political and environmental performance. Acknowledging the engineering strength of the Energy-Poverty Nexus team, the Dow Centre will support outstanding students (Dow Centre Graduate Fellows) from outside the engineering discipline who, together with their advisors, would strengthen the projects in this important area.

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