Jul 042010
Schematics of a steam cracking process plant
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A team of molecular biologists and materials scientists said Monday they had genetically engineered a virus to convert methane to ethylene more efficiently and at a significantly lower temperature than previously possible.

If they are successful in commercializing the new material, it will herald the arrival of a set of new technologies that represents a synthesis of molecular biology and industrial chemistry.

Ethylene, a gas with a characteristic sweet smell that may have once given insights to the Oracle of Delphi, is widely used in the manufacturing of plastics, solvents and fibers, and is essential for an array of consumer and industrial products. But it is still produced by steam cracking, a high-temperature, energy-intensive and expensive industrial process first developed in the 19th century. In this process, hydrocarbons found in crude oil are broken down into a range of simpler chemical compounds.

The search for more efficient, less expensive approaches to the production of ethylene has gone on for more than three decades, and although some progress has been made no new techniques have yet proved commercially viable.

Now a small group of researchers at Siluria Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup based here, are reporting progress in commercializing a nanoscience-based approach to ethylene production.

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