ARCHIVED - Membrane magic
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April 06, 2009— Ottawa, Ontario
Vaperma, a Québec City company, is partnering with NRC to manufacture new, more environmentally friendly separation technologies that could yield major energy savings for the petrochemical and other industries. Founded in 2003, the company has quickly become a world leader in industrial dewatering and dehydration systems, and currently produces Siftek™ membrane separators based on polymer gas separation membranes — very thin, selectively porous plastic sheets — that remove water from ethanol at an industrial scale.
Originally based on polymer technology developed at the Université Laval, Vaperma's product for dewatering ethanol makes corn-based ethanol production more economical and environmentally friendly compared with energy-intensive distillation or molecular-sieving processes. Current industrial processes use a lot of energy to heat and cool gases and liquids to extract useful compounds, but membrane separation using specialized polymers accomplish the task with far less.
Dr. Michael Guiver, a polymeric materials researcher at the NRC Institute for Chemical Process and Environmental Technology (NRC-ICPET) in Ottawa, says polymeric membranes offer a very efficient way to process ethanol and obtain a pure product with significantly less net energy input. "With our help, Vaperma aims to use their existing hollow fibre membranes as supports to make composite membranes with more potential applications, so they can tap new markets," he says.
High performance polymers need to be coated as thin layers — less than a micron thick — over "nets" of more robust, cheaper polymers that provide mechanical strength, to form what's called a composite membrane.
"If the polymer in an industrial membrane is very expensive, which specialized high-performance polymers tend to be, then you want to make the filter layer as thin as possible both to reduce costs and gain maximum throughput," says Dr. Guiver.
For Vaperma, Dr. Guiver is developing a novel class of highly selective and permeable polymers that can efficiently separate gaseous compounds. These newly developed materials perform radically better than most currently available membrane polymers, allowing unusually large amounts of gas to flow through. They're also selective enough to allow a desirable gas to cross while barring unwanted ones.
"This is an extraordinary class of materials," he says. "Our goal has been to improve the way membrane materials are made, to ensure consistency and quality. We've also introduced completely new materials, enabling us to tune their selectivity to different gases to get better separation capability."
NRC-ICPET is also helping Vaperma scale up the manufacture of these novel polymers from lab-size to industrial-size batches. So far, Dr. Guiver's group has managed to reduce the time needed to synthesize Vaperma's test polymers from days to just one or two hours.
"Speaking generally, gas permeable polymers have many applications," says Dr. Guiver. These include making enriched oxygen or pure nitrogen from air; capturing carbon dioxide from smokestack gases to clean the environment; and removing carbon dioxide from natural gas so it can be pumped through pipelines without corroding them.
Besides refining ethanol, Vaperma foresees its products being used as a relatively reliable and cost-effective way to separate water from organic compounds such as acids, esters and the like. They could also be used to recover methane from crude natural gas, and to purify manufactured biogases.
"Apart from natural gas processing, there are also great opportunities in the petrochemical industry," notes Dr. Guiver. "There are huge potential energy savings from using membranes rather than traditional energy-intensive separation technologies in a wide spectrum of applications."
Thanks to NRC's help, Vaperma is well on its way of realizing its goal to become a global leader in the manufacture and supply of advanced gas separation solutions for clean energy and industrial uses
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