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Membrane Technology to be Studied for Industrial Processes

Michael Tsapatsis (University of Minnesota)

Michael Tsapatsis (University of Minnesota)

Engineers and materials scientists at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop membrane technology for energy-efficient separations in a range of process industries. The three-year, $1.8 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) aims to adapt lab research on nanotechnology for membranes that can improve production efficiencies in the chemical, water, fossil fuel, and renewable energy industries.

Current separation and purification processes are considered prime targets for energy savings, since they are estimated to consume as much as six percent of total U.S. energy. Research by Minnesota chemical engineering professor Michael Tsapatsis (pictured right) and colleagues published last year developed a method to produce free-standing, ultra-thin zeolite nanosheet films that speed up filtration processes and require less energy. Zeolite in its natural form is a volcanic, porous mineral made of aluminum and silicon.

The award is expected to apply this technology to improve efficiencies of industrial processes, bridging the gap between academic research and commercial application, particularly in biofuel and plastics production. For both applications, say the researchers, a large market exists that is not being met with current membrane technologies.

“We have the science,” says Tsapatsis, “but this grant will allow us to scale up the research and move it closer to market.” The researchers estimate that for biofuels alone, annual membrane sales of $500 million per year can be anticipated if the technology is fully implemented. Similar sales are expected for the plastics industry, bringing total sales to $1 billion per year.

In June 2012, Tsapatsis and colleagues published research showing a faster and less expensive method for producing a catalyst for chemical reactions using zeolite nanosheets, with the potential for extensive savings in the fuels and chemical industries. That technology has been licensed for commecial development to Argilex Technologies, a Minnesota start-up company.

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