Mobile fuel processing materialises from 3D printed parts

A novel way to exploit stranded reserves of natural gas has produced astounding technical ramifications. Prime among them is the ability to use 3D printing technology within mobile processing platforms to produce fuel from gases virtually anywhere and anytime.

In the proof-of-concept stage, 3D-printed components are being designed that, once assembled, can convert natural gas into clean-burning dimethyl ether, an LPG-compatible fuel that can replace diesel.

The associated engineering challenges square perfectly with the research interests of Professor Paul Webley from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

He says the innovative project was made possible by a strategic alliance between the Australian and Indian governments, with Bharat Petroleum as a key industry partner.

While Professor Webley describes the technology as being in its early stages, the project’s 3D printer aspect is due to be finalised in 2017. The rollout of an end-to-end gas-processing system is expected within the next five to 10 years.

The hallmark of the new technology is versatility. It does away with the need for pipelines and fixed facilities to process natural gas. Replacing them are shipping containers or trucks, new catalysts, a 3D printer and reels of titanium wire.

However, the same principles can be applied more broadly. New devices could be printed to test water pollution, or to build small units destined for the home garage to generate hydrogen fuel from water, to power automobiles.

Professor Webley says the innovation possible amounts to a quiet revolution that is limited only by our imagination. “It amounts to a new and mobile form of chemical engineering,” Professor Webley says.

The 3D printing industry has noted the breakthrough and contacted the researchers, keen to explore the vast new manufacturing horizon.

More information

Professor Paul Webley, +613 9035 7873, paul.webley@unimelb.edu.au