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Bayer looks for source of benzene, pushes research consortium

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The region's cheap supply of shale gas could solve another problem if government and industry collaborate on new ways to convert it to benzene, a local Bayer Corp. executive said at a Downtown conference on Thursday.

The company's MaterialScience division in Robinson is pushing for a research consortium, possibly with the help of National Energy Technology Laboratory, said Don S. Wardius, head of renewable and alternative feedstocks.

Chemical companies use benzene to make foam car seats, sporting goods and paints, but it's expensive and will probably need to be imported to replace declining supplies, Wardius said.

“This is a vision,” he told about 130 researchers, government officials, and chemical and gas industry officials at the “Manufacturing Renaissance Series.” “It could be revolutionary and transformative if it were to come about.”

Bayer has been talking about the project with federal officials for about a year, said Andrew J. Gellman, the head of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who sat on the same panel and works with the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park.

The key is finding a catalyst to make the conversion cheap enough to lower the price of benzene, they said.

“Bayer isn't wild about producing benzene itself,” Gellman said after the talk. “But they would love to have another company supply them.”

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the university organized the conference to help manufacturers, the business community, government and researchers collaborate on ways to maximize the cheap supply of gas coming from the Marcellus and other shale formations. The idea for benzene is similar to what Royal Dutch Shell plc and other companies are proposing to make ethylene in the region: Take cheap fuels from shale wells and break them down into raw materials manufacturers use.

Though benzene has many uses, few companies produce it, with its supplies coming mostly as a byproduct of other work, Wardius said. Its production declined 20 percent since 2007, and importing it is now the best solution available, he said.

Funding a research team could cost about $1 million, he said after his presentation. Bayer executives considered doing the project internally but decided it needed broader expertise.

A profitable solution is not guaranteed, and having a public-private partnership would mitigate that risk and help supply the level of expertise required, Wardius added.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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