University of Southern California The USC Andrew and Erna Viterbi School of Engineering

Hydrocarbon Processing 

Hydrocarbons, used for fuels, electrical power generation, heating, and raw materials, are among the world's most important energy resources. Hydrocarbons are derived from petroleum, natural gas, and coal and will continue to be a vital resource as new renewable energy technologies are developed.

At USC, the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute concentrates its research efforts to find long-range energy solutions for future hydrocarbon needs. These efforts include searching for new chemistry directed towards renewable fuels in order to develop alternative hydrocarbon sources and to develop more efficient ways of utilizing and recycling current hydrocarbon resources.


Key Research

  • Hydrocarbon Chemistry 

    Hydrocarbons have to be chemically altered to make useful products and materials. This is done by chemical and petrochemical industries in processes such as isomerization, alkylation homologation, etc. These processes are frequently catalyzed by acids and involve electron deficient intermediates called carbocations.

    USC researchers have pioneered new methods to study such processes and their mechanisms and have developed new synthetic methodologies for hydrocarbon bond making and bond breaking. These technological breakthroughs have found applications in information technology, photochemical energy conversion, and biomedical devices while improving the hydrocarbon efficiency of fossil fuel resources which includes the recycling of carbon dioxide (CO2) into useful materials.


  • Carbocations and Onium Ions

    This study concentrates on highly acidic systems called superacids from conversions of hydrocarbons. These superacids have long lifetimes which allow researchers to better study and understand acid catalyzed processes. The explored reactions of carbocations and the investigation of onium ions and ylides enable researchers to unlock new applications in alkylation, acylation, and nitration reactions involving highly reactive superelectrophiles.


  • Improved fuels and Processes 

    Researchers systematically study acid catalyzed conversion of hydrocarbons by using methods created in connection with studies of carbocations and their reactions in order to develop environmentally friendly and practical alkylation processes for the manufacturing of high octane gasoline.

    Work is also being carried out to improve diesel fuels, making them brun cleaner with high cetane ratings and without the use of toxic additives.


  • Methanol Economy

    The Methanol Economy is the concept of developing chemistry to produce and use methanol in place of fossil fuels. The goal is to develop renewable sources of energy that can help replace U.S. dependence upon fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), and to recycle CO2 into new fuels and materials while mitigating manmade influences and effectson climate change.

    USC Researchers, under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Professor George A. Olah, are working to develop this new Methanol Economy approach. Since methanol can be efficiently made by directly converting CO2, researchers are developing new ways to capture high concentration exhausts of power plants and eventually from the CO2 content of the air itself. This sustainable method of recycling resources would not only create new fuels and materials but also decrease the high concentrations of CO2 content in our atmosphere, a main factor of climate change.

    Currently, no other method exists for using CO2 as a significant fuel or synthetic material source; however, it requires a considerable amount of energy in order to convert CO2 into methanol.

    Methanol is an excellent high-octane fuel for internal combustion engines and is an even more efficient fuel in fuel cells which is easily converted to dimethyl ether, a diesel substitute. Moreover, methanol can be easily converted to ethylene and propylene, which can replace petroleum as a manufacturing material.


  • Synthetic Reagents and Methods 

    Researchers are also studying methods to develop selective synthetic reagents which include systems, particularly boron and titanium based reagents, electrochemical synthesis, selective alkylating, fluorinating, nitrating, oxygenating, carbonylating and other reagent systems. 


  • Polymers 

    The USC polymer/materials chemistry effort focuses on the development of polymeric materials with novel electronic structures and new molecular architectures. These new materials are designed and prepared for the purpose of achieving new physical and chemical properties which can be used in applications such as photochemical energy conversion, high speed information processing, or biomedical endeavors.

    Recent breakthroughs in USC polymer research include the development of electroactive materials containing molecular segments with extended p-electron conjugation and the development of materials with control of nanoscale (10-9 meter) molecular order.

    These breakthroughs have sparked the creation of new optical applications including innovative night emitting diodes, solid-state organic lasers, and electro-optic. Moreover, these applications of polymeric electro- optic modulators are improving the cable television industry, the video displays industry, biomedical sensing, and radar technology.


  • Nanomaterials

    Nanochemistry development at USC focuses on new light harvesting dendrimeric materials that will improve the overall efficiency of energy collection from electromagnetic-radiation which is analogous to the photochemistry of green plants. Researchers are not only working develop systematic new approaches to the synthesis of a wide range of nano-architectures using novel synthetic methods but are also working to commercially exploit these new photonic bandgap concepts and phenomena.



  • Pursue the long-range sustainable development of hydrocarbon chemistry.
  • Develop new fuels and materials that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to the current energy generation problems.
  • Train researchers in the field of hydrocarbon chemistry.
  • Ensure that research results and discoveries of significance will be effectively exploited.


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