A University of Minnesota team of researchers has overcome a major hurdle in the quest to design a specialized type of molecular sieve that could make the production of gasoline, plastics and various chemicals more cost effective and energy efficient. The breakthrough research, led by chemical engineering and materials science professor Michael Tsapatsis in the university's College of Science and Engineering, is published in the most recent issue of the journal Science.
After more than a decade of research, the team devised a means for developing free-standing, ultra-thin zeolite nanosheets that as thin films can speed up the filtration process and require less energy. The team has a provisional patent and hopes to commercialize the technology.
"In addition to research on new renewable fuels, chemicals and natural plastics, we also need to look at the production processes of these and other products we use now and try to find ways to save energy," Tsapatsis said.
Separating mixed substances can demand considerable amounts of energycurrently estimated to be approximately 15 percent of the total energy consumptionpart of which is wasted due to process inefficiencies. In days of abundant and inexpensive fuel, this was not a major consideration when designing industrial separation processes such as distillation for purifying gasoline and polymer precursors. But as energy prices rise and policies promote efficiency, the need for more energy-efficient alternatives has grown.
One promising option for more energy-efficient separations is high-resolution molecular separation with membranes. They are based on preferential adsorption and/or sieving of molecules with minute size and shape differences. Among the candidates for selective separation membranes, zeolite materials (crystals with molecular-sized pores) show particular promise.
While zeolites have been used as adsorbents and catalysts for several decades, there h
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University of Minnesota