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Companies seek to harness shale gas

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- South Charleston-based Aither Chemicals isn't the only startup with hopes of converting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale into a variety of widely used chemicals.

Aither has a process that uses ethane as a feedstock. The company has said its process uses 80 percent less energy and produces 90 percent less carbon dioxide output than the conventional steam-based cracker technology used by Shell Oil and others.

Siluria Technologies Inc. of San Francisco says it harnesses a combination of nanomaterial science, biotechnology and chemical engineering to convert methane into useful chemicals.

Len Dolhert, chief executive officer of Aither, said he knows about Siluria.

"They are not competitors, and our technologies could be complementary," he said. "They want to use methane as a feedstock, while Aither uses ethane.

"It's worth noting that Aither's technology is ready for commercialization now, while Siluria is in a very challenging field where researchers have worked for over 30 years," Dolhert said. "It does not appear they, or anyone else, have developed a commercially viable (methane) process yet."

Siluria says on its website that it has raised more than $63 million. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the most recent cash infusion, $30 million, came from Bright Capital, a Russian-based venture capital fund, and Vulcan Capital, a fund affiliated with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

In January Aither enlisted Pittsburgh-based Renewable Manufacturing Gateway to help raise $750 million. Dolhert said in February that Aither had raised over $1 million from a variety of sources.

On the topic of Aither Chemicals: Company spokesman Jason Keeling pointed out that Dolhert will be the keynote speaker Tuesday at Pittsburgh Chemical Day, an event that is expected to draw more than 400 attendees.

The one-day forum is designed to promote idea sharing and provide insight into current key issues affecting the chemical industry.

Last year's speaker was the CEO of NOVA Chemicals. The 2010 keynote speaker was Greg Babe, who recently retired as president and CEO of Bayer Corp. and Bayer MaterialScience.

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American Electric Power, whose Appalachian Power subsidiary serves southern West Virginia, and FirstEnergy Corp., whose Monongahela Power and Potomac Edison subsidiaries serve northern and eastern West Virginia, have been named "Top Utilities in Economic Development for 2012" by Site Selection magazine.

The magazine's Adam Bruns wrote, "AEP's efforts are receiving added emphasis with the recent hiring of Mark James to lead the system's economic development efforts, as well as the hiring of John Smolak to lead economic development for Appalachian Power."

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FirstEnergy announced Wednesday that it is conducting an organizational study that is expected to result in the elimination of about 200 employees.

According to company spokesman Mark Durbin, FirstEnergy has about 17,000 employees. Of that total, about 1,700 are in West Virginia.


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