Specifically, the researchers found a simple way to convert methane into methyl chloride, which can easily be converted into petrochemicals such as ethylene or propylene, used to make plastics. Ethylene and propylene, says Johannes Lercher, a chemistry professor at the Munich University of Technology, are far easier to transport than methane is.
The process will also face competition. New gas-to-liquids technology, which converts natural gas into synthetic liquid fuels, is starting to become popular as an alternative to liquefied natural gas, and it's garnering the attention of oil giants like Exxon and Shell. It has not yet been widely used, though, because it's expensive to implement: it requires a lot of energy and large facilities. Weckhuysen says that if Dow could develop an affordable commercial process based on it new reaction, it could compete with gas-to-liquids technology.