A discovery in South Florida could lead to wider use of clean-burning fuels.
Scientist Roy Periana, who heads the Scripps Energy Materials Center in Jupiter, has devised a more efficient method of converting the major components of natural gas into useable fuels. The discovery, announced Thursday, could open the door to cheaper, more abundant fuel with lower emissions, Scripps said.
“This is considered one of the Holy Grails of chemistry,” said Periana, who said he has worked on the problem since the early 1990s. “If we can learn how to control the chemistry, we can have huge impact. The United States could move away completely from oil and build an economy on natural gas.”
The research will be published Friday by the journal Science.
Jim Robo, chairman and chief executive of NextEra Energy, parent company of Florida Power & Light Co., said the discovery is exciting.
“We share the strong belief that technology will continue to drive down the cost of energy in this country, improving efficiency, benefiting our environment and ultimately our customers,” Robo said. “We are fortunate to have such a renowned research facility in our back yard.”
FPL, the state’s largest electric utility, is partnering with Scripps on a separate project focusing on clean energy. About 68 percent of the utility’s electric generation runs on clean-burning natural gas, a spokesman said. FPL’s plant at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale is being converted from oil-burning to natural gas.
While Scripps is known best for its research to defeat cancer and other diseases, the institute “is a teaching organization,” Periana said. “We’re also interested in creating technology that would benefit mankind.”
The U.S. Department of Energy has said natural gas will replace coal as the largest source of U.S. electricity by 2035. Natural gas production is forecast to grow steadily, increasing 56 percent from 2012 to 2040, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in December.
The U.S. and Canada are the only major producers of commercially viable natural gas. Currently, natural gas has to be heated to high temperatures to convert it to useable fuel. Producers have had to build expensive plans to convert it.
The plant can represent 70 percent of the cost of the product, Periana said.
Periana said he has figured out a way to use chemistry to get the molecules to react without using high temperatures.
But he said more research is needed before the process can be commercialized. Scripps could spin out a company or partner with an energy or chemical company. Either method would benefit Scripps, bringing revenue to hire scientists and potentially breakthroughs, he said.
“If we could locate that here in Jupiter, that would be fantastic,” he said. A lab to continue the studies would cost $2 million to $3 million over three years, Periana estimates.
The county and state invested more than $600 million in taxpayer-backed incentives to lure the Scripps Research Institute from La Jolla, Calif., to Palm Beach County. Scripps opened its permanent campus in 2009 and has had only limited success at commercializing its discoveries.
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