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February 11, 2008 Volume 61, No. 3...

Breakthrough may revolutionize ethylene production...

Jared Sagoff A new environmentally friendly technology created by scientists at Argonne may revolutionize the production of the world's most commonly produced organic compound, ethylene. An Argonne research team led by senior ceramist Balu Balachandran (ES) devised a high-temperature membrane that can produce ethylene from an ethane stream by removing pure hydrogen. "This is a clean, energy-efficient way of producing a chemical that before required methods that were expensive and wasteful and also emitted a great deal of pollution," Balachandran said. Ethylene has a vast number of uses in all aspects of industry. Farmers and horticulturists use it as a plant hormone to promote flowering and ripening, especially in bananas. Doctors and surgeons have long used ethylene as an anesthetic, while ethylene-based polymers can be found in everything from freezer bags to fiberglass. Because the new membrane lets only hydrogen pass through it, the ethane stream does not come into contact with atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen, preventing the creation of a miasma of greenhouse gases -- nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide -- associated with the traditional production of ethylene by pyrolysis, in which ethane is exposed to jets of hot steam. The world's ethylene producers manufacture more than 75 million metric tons of ethylene per year, causing millions of metric tons' worth of greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike pyrolysis, which requires the constant input of heat, the hydrogen transport membrane (HTM) produces the fuel essentially enable the reaction to feed itself," Balachandran said. "The heat is produced where it is needed." The new membrane reactor also performs an additional chemical trick by constantly removing hydrogen from the stream, the membrane alters the ratio of reactants to products, enabling the reaction to make more ethylene that it theoretically could have before reaching equilibrium. "We are essentially confusing or cheating the thermodynamic limit," Balachandran said. "The membrane reactor thinks hey, I haven't reached equilibrium yet, let me take this reaction forward.'" While Balachandran's team, which included chemists Stephen Dorris (ES), Tae Lee (ES), Chris Marshall (CSE) and Charles Scouton, designed this experiment merely to prove the membrane's capability to produce ethylene, he hopes to extend the project by pairing with an industrial p...

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