Carnegie Mellon University
November 30, 2012

Press Release: Carnegie Mellon Engineering Students Develop Blueprint for Producing Chemicals from Shale Deposits

Contact: Chriss Swaney / 412-268-5776 /

PITTSBURGH-Shale gas production is fueling an American industrial revival. Because of the development of vast U.S. underground shale deposits, natural gas is much cheaper here than in Europe, and the U.S. petrochemical industry is seeking new ways to produce chemicals and polymers.

Teams of chemical engineering seniors at Carnegie Mellon University are evaluating new ways of transforming valuable hydrocarbons from the gas in Marcellus shale deposits stretching from New York through Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia. 

Under the direction of CMU Chemical Engineering Professors Ignacio Grossmann and Jeff Siirola, teams of four and five students have designed chemical processes for converting hydrocarbons like ethane from shale deposits directly into aromatic chemicals (benzene, toluene, xylenes) which are used in the manufacture of plastics, dyes, pharmaceuticals, and many other products. Traditionally, these intermediates are obtained from crude oil.

The students, part of a Chemical Process Systems Design class at CMU, discovered that the production of aromatics from ethane is not only technically feasible, but also economically very profitable.

"This means that U.S. companies like Bayer Corp in Pittsburgh could have advantaged access to low cost aromatics," said Grossmann, a professor in chemical engineering at CMU.

"Aside from promoting the rebirth of the traditional petrochemical industry in the U.S. which has been in decline for some time, the various components of gas in shale deposits offer the possibility of producing many chemicals with new alternative pathways and processes," according to Siirola.

In similar energy work, Grossmann led a team of researchers to devise a new process for improving the energy efficiency of ethanol production from woody cell wall feedstock.

"All these new developments can help spur this region's economic growth and important job creation," Grossmann said.

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