New membrane technology developed by a team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Imperial College London, and ExxonMobil could help reduce carbon emissions and energy intensity associated with refining crude oil. Laboratory testing suggests that this polymer membrane technology could replace some conventional heat-based distillation processes in the future.
Fractionation of crude oil mixtures using heat-based distillation is a large-scale, energy-intensive process that accounts for nearly 1% of the world’s energy use: 1,100 terawatt-hours per year (TWh/yr), which is equivalent to the total energy consumed by the state of New York in a year. By substituting the low-energy membranes for certain steps in the distillation process, the new technology might one day allow implementation of a hybrid refining system that could help reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption significantly compared to traditional refining processes.
“Much in our modern lives comes from oil, so the separation of these molecules makes our modern civilization possible,” said M.G. Finn, professor and chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Finn also holds the James A. Carlos Family Chair for Pediatric Technology. “The scale of the separation required to provide the products we use is incredibly large. This membrane technology could make a significant impact on global energy consumption and the resulting emissions of petroleum processing.”
To be reported in the July 17 issue of the journal Science, the paper is believed to be the first report of a synthetic membrane specifically designed for the separation of crude oil and crude-oil fractions. Additional research and development will be needed to advance this technology to industrial scale.
Membrane technology is already widely used in such applications as seawater desalination, but the complexity of petroleum refining has until now limited the use of membranes. To overcome that challenge, the research team developed a novel spirocyclic polymer that was applied to a robust substrate to create membranes able to separate complex hydrocarbon mixtures through the application of pressure rather than heat.
Read More: Membrane technology could cut emissions and energy use in oil refining