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Scientists create molecular sieve to separate hydrocarbons from crude oil

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Scientists have developed a new filtering material that can separate ethylene from ethane in crude oil, creating a more efficient, economical and eco-friendly way to make plastics. 

The new MOF framework separates captures ethane hydrocarbons from crude oil and allow ethylene to pass through
(Ethane (blue) is captured by the MOF, while ethylene (yellow) passes through - image via NIST)

The filtering material is a type of microporous metal-organic framework (MOF), developed by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 

MOFs have been considered as a potential for separating individual hydrocarbons from complex mixtures like crude oil for years, but most developed so far have captured the ethylene within the filter, while allowing the other materials through. This then leaves the problem of further separating the ethylene from the MOF.

According NIST’s latest study, however, their new iron-peroxo based MOF can be successful at working the opposite way - capturing the ethane while allowing the pure ethylene to pass through and be collected. 

The iron-peroxo MOF is basically a framework of organic chains joined by metal atoms. The team were able to modify the walls of a particular strand to include iron peroxide groups found in enzymes that can break down carbon-hydrogen bonds. When they passed crude oil over this MOF - which resembles the frame of a skyscraper, but on a molecular level - they found that it attracted and bound ethane strongly. 

By identifying which parts of the structure bound it most effectively, they believe they can make the compound more versatile and more effective at separating ethylene from ethane. 

The benefits of a new filtering system for separating ethylene from crude oil vs the traditional method
(Image via NIST)

This is a hugely valuable discovery since ethylene is used to create polyethylene plastics - such as shopping bags and containers. Globally, over 150 million tonnes are produced each year. 

The traditional way of separating ethylene from ethane is using a cryogenic distillation process that involves cooling it to -100 degrees C. Or it can be produced by steam cracking, a process that involves heating the hydrocarbons with steam up to 950 degrees C. Both of these processes however are extremely complex, inefficient and expensive. 

This cheaper and more energy efficient method of processing ethylene directly from crude oil will be a huge boost to the industry if NIST scientists can demonstrate its success on a large scale. 

Professor Banglin Chen, head of the team, said: “Without the fundamental understanding of the mechanism, no one would believe our results. We also think that we can try to add other small groups to the surface, maybe do other things. It’s a whole new research direction and we’re very excited.”

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Recent Comments
This is a great effective new research direction. I'll like to be updated on this, thanks.
Mubarak Abolore Azeez, 31 October 2018
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Scientists create molecular sieve to separate hydrocarbons from crude oil - Time to read 3 min
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