Dow Methane Challenge
The Dow Chemical Company’s open innovation challenge helped it develop world-changing technologies that will convert methane into chemical feedstocks.
Prof Graham Hutchings, Wales, and Prof Tobin Marks, United States
The Dow Chemical Company is one of the largest chemical manufacturing companies in the world and though it boasts an extensive and well-funded R&D organization it is turning to open innovation to give it an edge over its competitors.
Difficult to Develop
In 2007 Dow launched The Methane Challenge to identify partners and collaborators who could help it identify ways of converting methane – the major component of natural gas – to chemical feedstocks. These feedstocks are the raw materials of many chemical processes, and methane is appealing because of the abundance of natural gas reservoirs around the world.
However, the reason why Dow is pursuing answers via open innovation is that for the last 100 years methane has proved to be a tough nut to crack. It has stubbornly resisted attempts by chemists to form other chemicals, except by prohibitively expensive gas synthesis. It is a simple and ubiquitous molecule, yet is somehow impervious to current catalytic technologies. The answer to this problem remains as elusive now as it did at the turn of the last century.
The Search for Revolutionary Materials
The Methane Challenge is part of the Alternative Feedstock Program which has set itself a range of short, mid, and long-term goals for supplying new and advanced raw materials for chemical production.
Dow realized that it needed a more creative “out-of-the-box” approach to help it to come up with new technologies to convert the gas reserves into chemicals and liquid fuels. And so it issued the open innovation challenge “to leave no stone unturned in the quest for innovative concepts.”
The Methane Challenge was “an opportunity to extend the Dow lab bench and find people with whom we might not routinely have contact,” said Charles Kresge, Dow research vice president for Basic Plastics & Chemicals/Hydrocarbons & Energy/Licensing R&D. “Methane conversion is one of the most challenging areas in catalysis and we hoped the Methane Challenge would attract the highest caliber of research.”
Approximately 100 proposals were sent in by universities, top research institutions and chemical companies from all over the world. Dow was particularly looking for ideas of how to convert methane into ethylene, propylene or precursors for ethylene and propylene.
If Dow can tackle this chemical conundrum it will have a new foundation for the production of chemicals and liquid fuels, one that does not use petroleum. Dow is placing a lot of importance in the challenge as it believes that new methane chemistry will help it to grow in multiple territories and boost profits.
The proposals were whittled down to ten finalists who were then invited to submit more detailed and confidential proposals which were studied by consultants hired by Dow. Eventually two teams were selected; one from Cardiff University in Wales led by Prof Graham Hutchings, and the other from Northwestern University led by Prof Tobin Marks. They were awarded a total of $6.4 million in grants over a three-year period. It is interesting to note that both these teams also sought expertise outside of their University research communities.
The teams will employ different approaches to reach the same goals. Cardiff University will adopt a multidisciplinary approach to design oxidation catalysts that will activate methane at low temperatures, and Northwestern will employ several strategies using cutting-edge physical techniques and computer modeling.
Success has the potential to revolutionize the way chemical intermediates are made.
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