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At a pilot plant in Menlo Park, California, a technician pours white pellets into a steel tube and then taps it with a wrench to make sure they settle together. He closes the tube, and oxygen and methane—the main ingredient of natural gas—flow in. Seconds later, water and ethylene, the world’s largest commodity chemical, flow out. Another simple step converts the ethylene into gasoline.

The white pellets are a catalyst developed by the Silicon Valley startup Siluria, which has raised $63.5 million in venture capital. If the catalysts work as well in a large, commercial scale plant as they do in tests, Siluria says, the company could produce gasoline from natural gas at about half the cost of making it from crude oil—at least at today’s cheap natural-gas prices.

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