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Northwestern Joins NSF Center to Produce Fuels and Chemicals

Center will develop new technologies to produce fuels and chemicals from US shale-gas deposits

Northwestern University is a key partner in the new Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources (CISTAR). Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and led by Purdue University, the engineering research center will develop new technologies to produce fuels from US shale-gas deposits that could inject $20 billion annually into the economy.

The new approach proposes to convert light hydrocarbons from shale gas into chemicals and transportation fuels using a network of portable, modular processing plants. It is estimated that there is enough energy in shale to provide all of the nation’s transportation fuels for 100 years.

CISTAR has received the highly competitive NSF engineering research center designation. It is one of only 19 currently active ERCs in the United States and one of four new ERCs announced this year.

The NSF will provide $19.75 million over five years for the center. Industrial and university partners will contribute additional funding and critical resources. In addition to researchers from Northwestern and Purdue, the center includes lead academic teams from the University of New Mexico, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Texas at Austin as well as partners from industry, national laboratories, and national and international research organizations.

Northwestern faculty members who are involved with the center include Linda Broadbelt, Jennifer Cole, Tobin Marks, Justin Notestein, and Peter Stair.

Linda Broadbelt“We are extremely excited to be able to work with our colleagues from the other partner institutions on the important problem of shale gas conversion, which has such a profound influence on the nation’s energy portfolio,” said Broadbelt, the Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “It is so fitting that Northwestern is part of this center — with its unparalleled history in catalysis, we are thrilled to be able to continue to educate the next generation of students with a focus on hydrocarbon catalysis and science.”

The center will be housed in Purdue’s Discovery Park and led by Fabio Ribeiro, Purdue’s R. Norris and Eleanor Shreve Professor of Chemical Engineering.

The team has proposed a new process concept that, with innovations in catalysts, separation processes and reactor designs, is projected to be profitable at today’s energy prices, Ribeiro said.

These new technologies will help the United States maintain its manufacturing competitiveness while reducing the cost and potential environmental risks associated with gas and natural gas liquids transportation by pipeline, trucks and rail. The CISTAR process also will result in lower carbon emissions by reducing the cost of extracting natural gas and improving energy efficiency in converting light hydrocarbons to fuels and chemicals. 

“For more than 30 years, NSF Engineering Research Centers have promoted innovation, helped to maintain our competitive edge, and added billions of dollars to the U.S. economy,” said NSF director France A. Córdova. “They bring together talented innovators and entrepreneurs with resources from academia, industry and government to produce engineers and engineering systems that solve real-world problems.  I am confident that these new ERCs will strengthen U.S. competitiveness for the next generation and continue our legacy of improving the quality of life for all Americans.”

The CISTAR research will be linked with educational, mentoring and outreach initiatives for students at all levels. Graduate students will have opportunities to engage in multi-institution collaborative research, to mentor undergraduate and K-12 students in research, and to plan and participate in K-12 outreach events. Undergraduate students will learn about the research through coursework and educational training such as an entrepreneurship boot camp.