Chem.Info's associate editor Luke Simpson spoke with Siluria Technologies' president Alex Tkachenko about the natural gas-to-chemicals development process, why scaling-up should not be a problem and the benefits of having a non-oil feedstock for chemical manufacturers.
Chem.Info: Let’s go back to where it all started. Was this idea conceptualized on a cocktail napkin while drinking in a bar with colleagues?
Alex Tkachenko: It was most certainly not a cocktail napkin — it was a lot of hard work by a dedicated group of chemists who I had the good fortune of recruiting for this enterprise. It was in the second quarter of this year when we knew we had something unique. That is when we knew that we could use the MIT technology to make catalysts, that the catalysts would be stable and maintain their performance at the high temperatures required for the gas-to-gas reaction, and when we saw that we could run this reaction at several hundred degrees lower than anyone has been able to do until now.
CI: A lot of start-ups tout groundbreaking technology, but stumble when it comes time to scale up. How will the scale-up process work for you, and what makes you confident that it will work on a commercial scale?
AT: I’m as confident as a guy in a start-up has the right to be. It will be a lot of hard work, but from here it’s time and resources not [a case of] maybe we will fail.
This is not biology. I am a biochemist by training and spent my entire career in biotech before coming to this company. I know, respect and value biotechnology for what it can do, but I also fear it for its ability to change its mind half way though and say, “You know what, thank you so much for engineering the bug, but the bug actually wants to do its own thing — procreate, grow, mutate — and the bug is no longer interested in converting sugar to gasoline.” That’s just the nature of the game in biotech because those things have their own nature and what not.
This is chemistry — we are solving a problem of heterogeneous catalysis, which is a difficult problem to solve. This is synthetic chemistry, a water-based synthesis at room temperature. The unique features of the technology, which nobody else can do, is the ability to use a biologic template to grow these inorganic materials in the form of nanowires. The growth itself is very simple and robust.
There is still work to do to optimize the catalyst — that’s the current stage of the company and we expect to get to the desired performance some time next year — but it is a sequence of known steps and a matter of playing with an existing and robust toolbox of chemistry and chemical engineering.
I don’t for a second want it to sound easy and simple … but scaling up chemistry is something that people have done over the last 100 years many times. An enormous amount of intellectual capital exists on how to do that.
CI: Your recent press release  highlights four main advantages that this technology has over petroleum-based chemical processes: cost, manufacturer flexibility and stability, environmental gains and employment gains. How will these advantages be realized?
AT: Prices for commodity chemicals are set by the price of oil. Our process, when commercial, will set prices by the cost of natural gas. The price of oil today is about $75 a barrel, the price of an equivalent amount of natural gas is $25 per barrel. The price of the feedstock is two-thirds of the final manufacturing cost.
The energy budget is also affected. Steam cracking is a highly endothermic process. You can be very efficient at how you recover the energy you put in, but you can’t put in any less energy, according to thermodynamics, than what God wants you to put into the system.
Our chemistry is exothermic, so we are going to recover high quality heat and use it somewhere else in the plant.
Manufacturer Flexibility & Stability
AT: If you only run off one volatile commodity you are at a strategic disadvantage. If you have two commodities that you can choose from — oil and natural gas — then you are no longer at a strategic disadvantage.
AT: This comes back to the endothermic issue. If you need to heat the steam cracker to 900°C to crack you will be consuming energy and producing CO2. Steam cracking is the most energy-consuming, and therefore the highest greenhouse gas producing, process in the chemical industry.
People disagree on the extent that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming, but using less energy by doing more efficient chemistry is a good idea.
Also, if you look at the abundance of one versus the other, the oil reserves are about 55 years. Of course it won’t go dark in 55 years, but it will be harder and harder to get out and the price will get higher. The recoverable natural gas reserves are more like 1,000 years.
AT: New outlets for natural gas and new technologies for petrochemical manufacturers mean employment gains. We saw how many jobs the natural gas industry added over the past couple of years based on the new exploration and drilling technologies. I don’t want to throw around any numbers but there is potential for more employment gains in the natural gas and petrochemical industries.