Intel's Ronler Acres Plant

Silicon Forest

Friday, November 4, 2011


Contrary to what hippies think (since I know what other people think, being omniscient and all), our civilization runs on petroleum, about a hundred gallons a month per person. Specifically, gasoline. Oil causes all kinds of problems, mostly because we use so much of it, there are buckets of money involved, and well, that kind of explains it, doesn't it?

On the other hand, we have a boatload of Natural Gas, sometimes it is more than we know what to do with. It is great for any energy hunger operation that isn't going anywhere. You can run a pipeline and suck up all the gas you want or need. For powering any kind of vehicle, it is a little more problematic. You need a big, high pressure tank to hold the gas. You can get such tanks, but they are expensive and they are big.

Then I got an idea. Natural gas and oil are both hydrocarbons, which means they are composed of the elements hydrogen and carbon. Natural gas is mostly methane, which has a chemical formula of CH4, which means one carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms. Oil is composed of chains of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms. They come in a variety of lengths. Tars are very long chains, oils are composed of medium length chains, and gasoline is made of a variety of shorter chains. Methane is like a chain with a length of one.

Cracking is a process they use in the oil refineries to break long chains into shorter ones. They use it to turn things like tar, which is like the bottom of the barrel (literally and figuratively), into gasoline which is worth more. So we can break chains. Can we make chains?

What we need is a breakthrough in chemical engineering that would allow us to build up long chain hydrocarbons from short ones, like methane. We need a breakthrough because no one has figured out how to do this on an industrial scale for a low cost. If we could do this, we could be making gasoline out of natural gas, which would give us an alternative to getting oil from the Middle East, and could postpone a war with China and India over oil.

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