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Fossil Fuels ARPA-E methane emissions

Published on May 2nd, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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ARPA-E Braces For Exploding Diaper Market With $30 Million For Methane Monitoring

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May 2nd, 2014 by  

Just in time for the Energy Department’s ARPA-E Agency to sink $30 million into transformative technologies for measuring methane emissions, along comes a gigantic new market for natural gas: diapers. So weird! It turns out that methane-to-propylene is a thing, and propylene is a precursor to the polymers used in manufacturing the superabsorbent stuff that goes into disposable diapers. Who knew?

The new $30 million round of ARPA-E funding is for technologies to measure methane emissions related to the production and transportation of oil and natural gas. That includes wells drilled with the now-common “unconventional” method called hydrofracturing (fracking for short), which has been linked to significant public health risks.

ARPA-E methane emissions

Diapers (cropped) by AForestFrolic.

Methane Emissions And Baby Emissions

We were tipped to the methane-diaper connection by the self-described “world’s leading” German chemical company BASF, which just announced today that it is exploring the possibility of building a methane-to-propylene facility on the US Gulf Coast, scaled to serve the global market (methane is the main component of fossil natural gas).

The facility would be the largest single-site investment by BASF in its history, and it would specifically take advantage of “low gas prices due to U.S. shale gas production.”

The aim is to increase BASF’s competitiveness in the North American market by tightening up its supply chain. Propylene is one of the most common chemical precursors to a whole raft of other petrochemcials, including that aforementioned stuffing for disposable diapers.

Btw we’re not hating on BASF, which seems to be one of those transitioning companies (hurry it up, guys!). A couple of years ago BASF responded to the GMO crop issue in Europe by pulling out of that market, and it’s also involved in cutting edge solar cell development as well as wind power and other renewable tech fields.

Also for the record, BASF is playing catch-up with ExxonMobil, which has been doubling down on its shale assets while also laying plans for a huge expansion of its Gulf Coast operations in Baytown, Texas. The expansion is for, you guessed it, a new facility to convert natural gas to polyethylene, the world’s most common plastic.

What that all adds up to is more fracking headaches for local communities in the US. Even if solar, wind, and other renewable forms of energy continues to grow and push natural gas out of the fuel market, the market for gas-sourced plastics – and disposable diapers – will still be chugging away.

ARPA-E Gets Serious On Methane Emissions

It looks like the Obama Administration has its work cut out for it. The White House recently announced a comprehensive plan for reducing methane emissions across all sectors including agriculture, transportation and mining as well as oil and gas operations.

Critical to that endeavor is an accurate way to monitor and measure methane emissions, and that’s where the new ARPA-E methane emissions program comes in.

Called MONITOR, the program is aimed at developing low-cost, high-efficiency systems, but anybody who wants to apply for the funding should be aware that this is ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s Advanced Projects Research Agency, and they don’t deal in incremental improvements.

 

Teams that win part of the $30 million pot will have to come up with technologies that have disruptive potential, which ARPA-E describes like this:

The mere creation of a new learning curve does not ensure market penetration. Rather, the ultimate value of a technology is determined by the marketplace, and impactful technologies ultimately become disruptive – that is, they are widely adopted and displace existing technologies from the marketplace or create entirely new markets.

If you think you have the right stuff, here’s the link for more information.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Red

    Pay the parents to send the dirty diapers to you, and recycle them. Gotta be methane in that waste! Hah.

    • Ronald Brakels

      I’m sorry, but your idea stinks.

  • Ronald Brakels

    Very roughly I think 0.1% of US natural gas production would meet world propylene demand, so if methane is removed from use as a fuel there won’t be a lot of demand for it.

    • Otis11

      Agreed – so why ping BASF in the article for using methane? It makes it sound as if BASF’s use is going to increase the use of fracking.

      IIRC, BASF is a very responsible company – probably among the most responsible I’m aware of… (unless I’m misremembering something?)

  • JamesWimberley

    The headline prompted the thought that the last thing we need is a market in exploding diapers.

    • Jim Nelson

      And ones held up with braces, yet.

  • Michael Berndtson

    Air monitoring (be it methane, benzene or cadmium telluride) is not a technology problem. It is a will problem. That is we don’t have the will to implement rigorous air monitoring.

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