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Methane conversion apparatus and process using a supersonic flow reactor

Title: Methane conversion apparatus and process using a supersonic flow reactor.
Abstract: Apparatus and methods are provided for converting methane in a feed stream to acetylene. A hydrocarbon stream is introduced into a supersonic reactor and pyrolyzed to convert at least a portion of the methane to acetylene. The reactor effluent stream may be treated to convert acetylene to another hydrocarbon process. ...

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USPTO Applicaton #: #20140056766
Inventors: Robert L. Bedard, Christopher Naunheimer, Gavin P. Towler, Laura E. Leonard, Mark C. Morris, Alexander Mirzamoghadam

The Patent Description & Claims data below is from USPTO Patent Application 20140056766, Methane conversion apparatus and process using a supersonic flow reactor.


This application claims priority from Provisional Application No. 61/691,303 filed Aug. 21, 2012, the contents of which are hereby incorporated by reference in its entirety.


Apparatus and methods are disclosed for converting methane in a hydrocarbon stream to acetylene using a supersonic flow reactor.


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Light olefin materials, including ethylene and propylene, represent a large portion of the worldwide demand in the petrochemical industry. Light olefins are used in the production of numerous chemical products via polymerization, oligomerization, alkylation and other well-known chemical reactions. These light olefins are essential building blocks for the modern petrochemical and chemical industries. Producing large quantities of light olefin material in an economical manner, therefore, is a focus in the petrochemical industry. The main source for these materials in present day refining is the steam cracking of petroleum feeds.

The cracking of hydrocarbons brought about by heating a feedstock material in a furnace has long been used to produce useful products, including for example, olefin products. For example, ethylene, which is among the more important products in the chemical industry, can be produced by the pyrolysis of feedstocks ranging from light paraffins, such as ethane and propane, to heavier fractions such as naphtha. Typically, the lighter feedstocks produce higher ethylene yields (50-55% for ethane compared to 25-30% for naphtha); however, the cost of the feedstock is more likely to determine which is used. Historically, naphtha cracking has provided the largest source of ethylene, followed by ethane and propane pyrolysis, cracking, or dehydrogenation. Due to the large demand for ethylene and other light olefinic materials, however, the cost of these traditional feeds has steadily increased.

Energy consumption is another cost factor impacting the pyrolytic production of chemical products from various feedstocks. Over the past several decades, there have been significant improvements in the efficiency of the pyrolysis process that have reduced the costs of production. In a typical or conventional pyrolysis plant, a feedstock passes through a plurality of heat exchanger tubes where it is heated externally to a pyrolysis temperature by the combustion products of fuel oil or natural gas and air. One of the more important steps taken to minimize production costs has been the reduction of the residence time for a feedstock in the heat exchanger tubes of a pyrolysis furnace. Reduction of the residence time increases the yield of the desired product while reducing the production of heavier by-products that tend to foul the pyrolysis tube walls. However, there is little room left to improve the residence times or overall energy consumption in traditional pyrolysis processes.

More recent attempts to decrease light olefin production costs include utilizing alternative processes and/or feed streams. In one approach, hydrocarbon oxygenates and more specifically methanol or dimethylether (DME) are used as an alternative feedstock for producing light olefin products. Oxygenates can be produced from available materials such as coal, natural gas, recycled plastics, various carbon waste streams from industry and various products and by-products from the agricultural industry. Making methanol and other oxygenates from these types of raw materials is well established and typically includes one or more generally known processes such as the manufacture of synthesis gas using a nickel or cobalt catalyst in a steam reforming step followed by a methanol synthesis step at relatively high pressure using a copper-based catalyst.

Once the oxygenates are formed, the process includes catalytically converting the oxygenates, such as methanol, into the desired light olefin products in an oxygenate to olefin (OTO) process. Techniques for converting oxygenates, such as methanol to light olefins (MTO), are described in U.S. Pat. No. 4,387,263, which discloses a process that utilizes a catalytic conversion zone containing a zeolitic type catalyst. U.S. Pat. No. 4,587,373 discloses using a zeolitic catalyst like ZSM-5 for purposes of making light olefins. U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,095,163; 5,126,308 and 5,191,141 on the other hand, disclose an MTO conversion technology utilizing a non-zeolitic molecular sieve catalytic material, such as a metal aluminophosphate (ELAPO) molecular sieve. OTO and MTO processes, while useful, utilize an indirect process for forming a desired hydrocarbon product by first converting a feed to an oxygenate and subsequently converting the oxygenate to the hydrocarbon product. This indirect route of production is often associated with energy and cost penalties, often reducing the advantage gained by using a less expensive feed material.

Recently, attempts have been made to use pyrolysis to convert natural gas to ethylene. U.S. Pat. No. 7,183,451 discloses heating natural gas to a temperature at which a fraction is converted to hydrogen and a hydrocarbon product such as acetylene or ethylene. The product stream is then quenched to stop further reaction and subsequently reacted in the presence of a catalyst to form liquids to be transported. The liquids ultimately produced include naphtha, gasoline, or diesel. While this method may be effective for converting a portion of natural gas to acetylene or ethylene, it is estimated that this approach will provide only about a 40% yield of acetylene from a methane feed stream. While it has been identified that higher temperatures in conjunction with short residence times can increase the yield, technical limitations prevent further improvement to this process in this regard.

While the foregoing traditional pyrolysis systems provide solutions for converting ethane and propane into other useful hydrocarbon products, they have proven either ineffective or uneconomical for converting methane into these other products, such as, for example ethylene. While MTO technology is promising, these processes can be expensive due to the indirect approach of forming the desired product. Due to continued increases in the price of feeds for traditional processes, such as ethane and naphtha, and the abundant supply and corresponding low cost of natural gas and other methane sources available, for example the more recent accessibility of shale gas, it is desirable to provide commercially feasible and cost effective ways to use methane as a feed for producing ethylene and other useful hydrocarbons.


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FIG. 1 is a side cross-sectional view of a supersonic reactor in accordance with various embodiments described herein;

FIG. 2 is a schematic view of a system for converting methane into acetylene and other hydrocarbon products in accordance with various embodiments described herein; and

FIG. 3 is a side cross-sectional view of a supersonic reactor in accordance with various embodiments described herein.

FIG. 4 is a schematic view of a system for heat transfer between a heat exchanger and a downstream zone.

FIG. 5 is a side cross-sectional view of a straight single pass tube configuration in accordance with various embodiments described herein.

FIG. 6 is a side cross-sectional view of a U-tube configuration in accordance with various embodiments described herein.


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One proposed alternative to the previous methods of producing olefins that has not gained much commercial traction includes passing a hydrocarbon feedstock into a supersonic reactor and accelerating it to supersonic speed to provide kinetic energy that can be transformed into heat to enable an endothermic pyrolysis reaction to occur. Variations of this process are set out in U.S. Pat. Nos. 4,136,015 and 4,724,272, and Russian Patent No. SU 392723A. These processes include combusting a feedstock or carrier fluid in an oxygen-rich environment to increase the temperature of the feed and accelerate the feed to supersonic speeds. A shock wave is created within the reactor to initiate pyrolysis or cracking of the feed.

More recently, U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,219,530 and 5,300,216 have suggested a similar process that utilizes a shock wave reactor to provide kinetic energy for initiating pyrolysis of natural gas to produce acetylene. More particularly, this process includes passing steam through a heater section to become superheated and accelerated to a nearly supersonic speed. The heated fluid is conveyed to a nozzle which acts to expand the carrier fluid to a supersonic speed and lower temperature. An ethane feedstock is passed through a compressor and heater and injected by nozzles to mix with the supersonic carrier fluid to turbulently mix together at a speed of about Mach 2.8 and a temperature of about 427 C. The temperature in the mixing section remains low enough to restrict premature pyrolysis. The shockwave reactor includes a pyrolysis section with a gradually increasing cross-sectional area where a standing shock wave is formed by back pressure in the reactor due to flow restriction at the outlet. The shock wave rapidly decreases the speed of the fluid, correspondingly rapidly increasing the temperature of the mixture by converting the kinetic energy into heat. This immediately initiates pyrolysis of the ethane feedstock to convert it to other products. A quench heat exchanger then receives the pyrolized mixture to quench the pyrolysis reaction.

Methods and apparatus for converting hydrocarbon components in methane feed streams using a supersonic reactor are generally disclosed. As used herein, the term “methane feed stream” includes any feed stream comprising methane. The methane feed streams provided for processing in the supersonic reactor generally include methane and form at least a portion of a process stream. The apparatus and methods presented herein convert at least a portion of the methane to a desired product hydrocarbon compound to produce a product stream having a higher concentration of the product hydrocarbon compound relative to the feed stream.

The term “hydrocarbon stream” as used herein refers to one or more streams that provide at least a portion of the methane feed stream entering the supersonic reactor as described herein or are produced from the supersonic reactor from the methane feed stream, regardless of whether further treatment or processing is conducted on such hydrocarbon stream. With reference to the example illustrated in FIG. 2, the “hydrocarbon stream” may include the methane feed stream 1, a supersonic reactor effluent stream 2, a desired product stream 3 exiting a downstream hydrocarbon conversion process or any intermediate or by-product streams formed during the processes described herein. The hydrocarbon stream may be carried via a process stream line 115, as shown in FIG. 2, which includes lines for carrying each of the portions of the process stream described above. The term “process stream” as used herein includes the “hydrocarbon stream” as described above, as well as it may include a carrier fluid stream, a fuel stream 4, an oxygen source stream 6, or any streams used in the systems and the processes described herein. The process stream may be carried via a process stream line 115, which includes lines for carrying each of the portions of the process stream described above. As illustrated in FIG. 2, any of methane feed stream 1, fuel stream 4, and oxygen source stream 6, may be preheated, for example, by one or more heaters 7.

Prior attempts to convert light paraffin or alkane feed streams, including ethane and propane feed streams, to other hydrocarbons using supersonic flow reactors have shown promise in providing higher yields of desired products from a particular feed stream than other more traditional pyrolysis systems. Specifically, the ability of these types of processes to provide very high reaction temperatures with very short associated residence times offers significant improvement over traditional pyrolysis processes. It has more recently been realized that these processes may also be able to convert methane to acetylene and other useful hydrocarbons, whereas more traditional pyrolysis processes were incapable or inefficient for such conversions.

The majority of previous work with supersonic reactor systems, however, has been theoretical or research based, and thus has not addressed problems associated with practicing the process on a commercial scale. In addition, many of these prior disclosures do not contemplate using supersonic reactors to effectuate pyrolysis of a methane feed stream, and tend to focus primarily on the pyrolysis of ethane and propane. One problem that has recently been identified with adopting the use of a supersonic flow reactor for light alkane pyrolysis, and more specifically the pyrolysis of methane feeds to form acetylene and other useful products therefrom, is the very large amount of heat that is produced in the supersonic reactor. In order to generate a large amount of heat and flowrate of the carrier fluid, a large amount of fuel is consumed. Further, at least a portion of the heat must be removed from the process stream after pyrolysis occurs in order to halt the reaction when the desired products have been produced in so that the reactor effluent and other streams may be sent downstream of the supersonic reactor. Moreover, additional heat may be required to preheat a fuel stream or a feed stream. Thus, it would be desirable, to reduce the amount of fuel and/or energy consumed by the supersonic reactor and to improve the overall efficiency thereof Previous work has not fully appreciated or addressed these concerns.

In addition, a carrier stream and feed stream may travel through the reactor at supersonic speeds, which can quickly erode many materials that could be used to form the reactor shell, even after a short amount of time. Moreover, certain substances and contaminants that may be present in the hydrocarbon stream can cause corrosion, oxidation, and/or reduction of the reactor walls or shell and other equipment or components of the reactor. Such components causing corrosion, oxidation, or reduction problems may include, for example hydrogen sulfide, water, methanethiol, arsine, mercury vapor, carbidization via reaction with the fuel itself, or hydrogen embrittlement.

In accordance with various embodiments disclosed herein, therefore, apparatus and methods for converting methane in hydrocarbon streams to acetylene and other products is provided. Apparatus in accordance herewith, and the use thereof, have been identified to improve the overall process for the pyrolysis of light alkane feeds, including methane feeds, to acetylene and other useful products.

In accordance with one approach, the apparatus and methods disclosed herein are used to treat a hydrocarbon process stream to convert at least a portion of methane in the hydrocarbon process stream to acetylene. The hydrocarbon process stream described herein includes the methane feed stream provided to the system, which includes methane and may also include ethane or propane. The methane feed stream may also include combinations of methane, ethane, and propane at various concentrations and may also include other hydrocarbon compounds as well as contaminants. In one approach, the hydrocarbon feed stream includes natural gas. The natural gas may be provided from a variety of sources including, but not limited to, gas fields, oil fields, coal fields, fracking of shale fields, biomass, and landfill gas. In another approach, the methane feed stream can include a stream from another portion of a refinery or processing plant. For example, light alkanes, including methane, are often separated during processing of crude oil into various products and a methane feed stream may be provided from one of these sources. These streams may be provided from the same refinery or different refinery or from a refinery off gas. The methane feed stream may include a stream from combinations of different sources as well.

In accordance with the processes and systems described herein, a methane feed stream may be provided from a remote location or at the location or locations of the systems and methods described herein. For example, while the methane feed stream source may be located at the same refinery or processing plant where the processes and systems are carried out, such as from production from another on-site hydrocarbon conversion process or a local natural gas field, the methane feed stream may be provided from a remote source via pipelines or other transportation methods. For example a feed stream may be provided from a remote hydrocarbon processing plant or refinery or a remote natural gas field, and provided as a feed to the systems and processes described herein. Initial processing of a methane stream may occur at the remote source to remove certain contaminants from the methane feed stream. Where such initial processing occurs, it may be considered part of the systems and processes described herein, or it may occur upstream of the systems and processes described herein. Thus, the methane feed stream provided for the systems and processes described herein may have varying levels of contaminants depending on whether initial processing occurs upstream thereof.

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US 20140056766 A1
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Hydrocarbon Fluent Ethane Ic Reactor Methane Conversion

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20140227|20140056766|methane conversion apparatus and process using a supersonic flow reactor|Apparatus and methods are provided for converting methane in a feed stream to acetylene. A hydrocarbon stream is introduced into a supersonic reactor and pyrolyzed to convert at least a portion of the methane to acetylene. The reactor effluent stream may be treated to convert acetylene to another hydrocarbon process. |Uop-Llc