Methane –> Ethylene –> Plastic –> Oil??

As you will recall from recent reading, methane (CH4) is an enormously potent greenhouse gas, 21 times, by weight, more powerful than CO2.  We hear more about CO2 because it stays in the atmosphere doing it’s reflected-heat blocking for years more than methane does.  You will also know, as a matter of 21st century citizenship, that plastics — all around us– are a by-product of oil, the same oil spreading over the Gulf, and to which we are in thrall to.

It turns out that the plastics come from a long chain of “cracking,” chemically altering the basic crude oil into many products — among them, ethylene, which is used in the manufacture of plastic packing, anti-freeze, tires, footwear — thousands of classes of products!  So, if a way were found to make ethylene from methane two nice results would follow: methane would be used and in the process become not-methane and, less oil would be needed to produce the the same items, decreasing (we hope) one segment of our oil dependency.

This article doesn’t go into that “two-fer,” but does talk about the potentially important effects of their research — which, by the way, involved genetic engineering.

SAN FRANCISCO — A team of molecular biologists and materials scientists said Monday they had genetically engineered a virus to convert methane to ethylene more efficiently and at a significantly lower temperature than previously possible.

If they are successful in commercializing the new material, it will herald the arrival of a set of new technologies that represents a synthesis of molecular biology and industrial chemistry.

Ethylene, a gas with a characteristic sweet smell that may have once given insights to the Oracle of Delphi, is widely used in the manufacturing of plastics, solvents and fibers, and is essential for an array of consumer and industrial products. But it is still produced by steam cracking, a high-temperature, energy-intensive and expensive industrial process first developed in the 19th century. In this process, hydrocarbons found in crude oil are broken down into a range of simpler chemical compounds.

NY Times: Methane to Ethylene

One Response to Methane –> Ethylene –> Plastic –> Oil??

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