Oct. 22, 2015

By Barbara Buell

The Stanford Natural Gas Initiative (NGI) has awarded its second round of research grants, bringing its total investment in innovative natural gas solutions to $1.3 million since the initiative was launched just a year ago. “These grants fund research to help ensure that natural gas is produced and used with the least environmental impacts possible while providing the economically viable bridge we need to achieve a clean energy future,” said NGI Director Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford.

The initiative, which is cohosted by the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and the Precourt Institute for Energy, addresses questions raised by the tremendous growth in natural gas production over the last 10 years. That growth has thrust natural gas into the global spotlight as a potential enabler of a cleaner energy future. But it also has raised complex questions about safety, economics, and regulation. “NGI supports research into new technologies and solutions that meet the growing global energy demand while limiting CO2 emissions growth,” said Sally Benson, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

NGI’s activities include funding the research of Stanford faculty, researchers, and students in six core areas: resource development, environmental impacts and climate change, uses of natural gas, global markets and finance, policy and regulatory reform, and geopolitical impacts. “Stanford has broad multidisciplinary expertise across all the areas that must be brought to bear on securing a diverse, sustainable energy future,” said Pam Matson, dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

In addition to $400,000 in inaugural grants made in 2014, this fall NGI made five new $100,000 research awards to Stanford faculty for 2015, as well as an additional $400,000 in second-year funding for the existing grants. The five newly awarded seed grants are:

Simultaneous Atmospheric C1C3 Detection with Compact Midinfrared Laser Sensor

Led by Ronald Hanson in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Robert Jackson in the Department of Earth System Science, the project goal is development of a laser-based instrument for field monitoring of methane, ethane, and propane in the atmosphere. The sensor will feature a new signal-processing technique that will eliminate noise and interference. After development and testing in the lab, the new sensor will be deployed for field trials in San Francisco.

Semiconductor Lasers for Methane Leak Detection and Monitoring

Led by Leo Hollberg in Physics, this research is focused on developing compact, efficient laser sensors that could be widely deployed (at low cost and mass-producible) to detect and monitor natural gas leaks in production, storage, transport, and end-use settings. The proposed sensors will be based on advanced laser spectroscopic methods and new mid-infrared semiconductor lasers. The research will evaluate the performance of a range of new semiconductor devices for methane leak detection, which would then be followed by miniaturization and system optimization.

Converting Methane to Methanol Using Nature-inspired, Self-assembled Material

Led by Matteo Cargnello in the Department of Chemical Engineering, the research is focused on engineering new materials. Composed of microporous polymer networks with embedded metallic clusters, these materials will perform the transformation of methane gas into liquid methanol using geometric confinement effects to bypass thermodynamic limitations. The ideas for these catalysts are inspired by naturally occurring enzymes that show much better performance for this reaction.

Rational Design of Catalysts for the Direct Conversion of Natural Gas to Methanol

Led by Xiaolin Zheng in Mechanical Engineering and Jens K. Nørskov in Chemical Engineering, this research will design new catalysts for the direct conversion of methane to methanol. The research focuses on MoS2 catalysts, using metal dopants, alkali promoters, and strain to tune the activity. The researchers will use computational models to investigate the possible catalyst systems; then synthesize and test the catalysts in the lab.

Natural Gas Supply and the Economy-Wide Impacts of US Climate Change Policies

Led by Lawrence H. Goulder in the Department of Economics and John Weyant of Management Science & Engineering and the Energy Modeling Forum, the project will extend an Energy-Environment-Economy model of the U.S. to enable it to capture major changes of gas supply and the associated implications for greenhouse gas emissions. The improved model will be used to assess two climate policy options: a national renewable energy standard and a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

NGI is working to expand its pool of available grant funds and anticipates launching requests for a third round of seed grant proposals in 2016. Interested Stanford faculty or researchers should check the NGI website in early spring 2016, or contact NGI Managing Director Brad Ritts at ritts@stanford.edufor information on the next round of proposal submissions.

In addition to its research grant program, NGI convenes meetings and workshops on natural gas topics. It also hosts an industrial affiliates program, which aims to generate interaction with corporate partners. Sustaining members include General Electric, Schlumberger, Aramco Services, Shell and XTO Energy (ExxonMobil). Corporate members include Apache and Baker Hughes.

Barbara Buell is director of communications for the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.