San Francisco start-up Siluria Technologies today announced that it has secured funding to commercialize its process to transform natural gas into chemicals and materials for large-scale production – with far less an environmental impact than oil.
Venture capital investors including Alloy Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Altitude Life Sciences Ventures, Lux Capital, and Sumitomo Corporation are financing Siluria's "Series A" funding. Siluria will use the funding to target the market for ethylene, the world’s largest commodity chemical.
Siluria was established on MIT material science research that sought to create a commercially viable catalyst for inducing natural gas into petrochemicals, said Siluria CEO Dr. Alex Tkachenko. Continued investment into the research led to the creation of a synthetic technology that grows metals and metal oxide crystals on a biological template, he explained.
Prior to this, no one ever came up with a commercially viable catalyst to transform natural gas into larger molecules of carbon that can be used to produce chemicals, Tkachenko claimed. The coupling reaction (a process called methane activation) produces energy that can be reused elsewhere in a plant, he added.
Dr. Tkachenko's previous job was as vice president of corporate development and strategic planning of Hana Biosciences, a biopharmaceutical company, and as associate director at Genentech.
As oil becomes scarcer and less affordable, society must seek out more sustainable alternatives, Tkachenko said. Oil also requires energy intensive endothermic chemical processes to create petrochemicals, which releases substantially more carbon into the atmosphere, he added.
However, the notion of nearly 'limitless' natural gas harkens back to the days of cheap oil, when the scientists who devised the aforementioned chemical processes couldn't perceive an end to its abundance. When it comes down to it, natural gas, like oil, is a finite resource.
A bridge or a solution?
I recalled reading a National Geographic story about the enormous infrastructure cost of importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) into the United States once domestic stocks are depleted, and asked whether reliance on another hydrocarbon was nothing more than a stay of execution.
Tkachenko replied that 98 percent of natural gas demand is met by domestic supply in the U.S. "We know we are number three in the world, not number 17 like with oil…. There is 45-50 years of oil left in the world; natural gas is measured in centuries."
Natural pride aside, natural gas is the only feedstock abundant enough and widely distributed enough to replace oil, he noted.
What's more, there is a significantly positive environmental upside to switching to natural gas, Tkachenko said. A single plant using Siluria's chemistry would save 3M barrels of oil every year, he added.
"That's 650M barrels saved on a global scale – one month of American consumption and four Frances worth of CO2. That's a 100M tons per year reduction [in carbon], or the equivalent of 10M cars switching from internal combustion to electric [engines]."