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U of Minn's Zeolite Nanosheets Could Improve Gas, Plastics Production

by Editor1 last modified October 24, 2011 - 16:29

University of Minnesota researchers have devised an approach to fabricating thin-film nanosheets that could be sued to make production of gasoline, plastics and petrochemicals cheaper and more energy efficient.

U of Minn's Zeolite Nanosheets Could Improve Gas, Plastics Production

U of M researchers have developed thin and rugged nanosheets as a membrane barrier for more energy-efficient production of gasoline, plastics.

The team’s breakthrough of a specialized molecular sieve comes after a decade of research.

As thin films, these nanosheets can speed up the filtration process.

The U of M work was led by chemical engineering and materials science professor Michael Tsapatsis in the university's College of Science and Engineering. “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,” Prof. Tsapatsis said.

Separating mixed substances can consume up to 15 percent of the total energy consumption. One avenue of research to make such separations more efficient has been high-resolution molecular separation with membranes. The approach is based on preferential adsorption and/or sieving of molecules -- with minute size and shape differences.

Zeolite materials, which are crystals with molecular-sized pores, had shown particular promise because they have long been used as adsorbents and catalysts.

But, finding a process for turning zeolitic materials into extended and intact nanosheets remained elusive. Enter the U of M’s research, which sought to develop a cost-effective, reliable and scalable deposition method for thin film zeolite formation.

The team elected to use sound waves in a specialized centrifuge process. The approach let the team develop “carpets” of flaky crystal-type nanosheets that flat and have just the proper thickness. It can separate molecules as a sieve or as a membrane barrier in both research and industrial applications.

“We think this discovery holds great promise in commercial applications,” said Kumar Varoon, a U of M chemical engineering and materials science Ph.D. candidate, and a primary author of a paper on the process. “This material has good coverage and is very thin. It could significantly reduce production costs in refineries and save energy.”

Members of the research team also include Ph.D. candidate Xueyi Zhang; postdoctoral fellows Bahman Elyassi and Cgun-Yi Sung; former students and Ph.D. graduates Damien Brewer, Sandeep Kumar, J. Alex Lee and Sudeep Maheshwari, graduate student Anudha Mittal; former undergraduate student Melissa Gettel; and U of M faculty members Matteo Cococcioni, Lorraine Francis, Alon McCormick, K. Andre Mkhoyan and Michael Tsapatsis.

This research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy), the National Science Foundation and various University of Minnesota partners.

The University of Minnesota team has a provisional patent and hopes to commercialize the technology. The work appears in the journal Science.