New adsorbent material could slash energy usage and carbon footprint associated with ethylene production

A silica zeolite adsorbent discovered by scientists from Spain’s Instituto de Tecnologia Quimica (ITQ; Valencia) and ExxonMobil (Irving, TX) ultimately could shrink the environmental footprint of food containers, garbage bags, water bottles and other plastic products. The material could significantly reduce the amount of energy and emissions associated with the production of ethylene by as much as 25% in both the energy needed for ethylene separation and in carbon dioxide emissions. Research on the patented ITQ-55 material has been published in the peer-reviewed journal, Science.

Zeolites are porous materials frequently used as adsorbents and catalysts in chemical processes. The uniquely structured silica zeolite—heart-shaped cages interconnected by flexible elongated pore openings—can be used in gas separation processes, such as the recovery of ethylene from ethane, with an unprecedented degree of selectivity at ambient temperature, according to the researchers, who characterize the new material as a flexible molecular sieve.

“ITQ-55 is a very interesting material whose unique combination of pore dimension, topology, flexibility and chemical composition results in a highly stable and inert material that is able to adsorb ethylene and filter out ethane,” said Professor Avelino Corma of the Instituto de Tecnologia Quimica and co-author of the research. “We are excited about this discovery and look forward to continuing our fruitful collaboration with ExxonMobil.”

Much more research is needed before the material is a candidate for commercialization, but it has the potential to be a game changing technology in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability for plastics processors.

Chemical plants account for about eight percent of global energy demand and about 15% of the projected growth in demand to 2040, according to ExxonMobil. As global populations and living standards continue to rise, demand for auto parts, housing materials, electronics and other products made from plastics and other petrochemicals will continue to grow. Improving industrial efficiency is part of ExxonMobil’s mission to meet the world’s growing need for energy while minimizing environmental impacts, said the company.

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