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Emerging membrane technologies for gas separation

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Hydrocarbon Engineering,

The industrial gas separation technologies that are currently used for processing natural gas, such as cryogenic distillation, and pressure swing adsorption, often require a large amount of energy. Conversely, membrane technologies have attracted a lot of interest in the gas separation industry as a cost effective, robust, and energy saving alternative to conventional technologies. With recent attention towards the production of natural gas, membranes have gained prominence as one of the most efficient technologies to process the gas streams to supply to consumers as a viable energy source.

However, at present gas separation membrane technologies are still in the development process and need to address several critical challenges before being adopted on a large scale. Developing efficient and economical gas separation membrane technologies to replace conventional separation processes is a prime focus area for both research institutes and technology developers. The research entitled ‘Emerging Membrane Technologies for Gas Separation (TechVision)’ focuses on recent innovations and developments with regard to membrane technologies used for various natural gas processing applications.

This research includes a holistic analysis of the various membrane materials, which includes their technical capabilities, market potential, and industry requirements. In addition, the technology limitation factors affecting the adoption of membranes for various natural gas processing applications analysed, key opportunity areas identified, and insights provided on the road ahead for technology developers in this space. The scope of the research service is limited only to natural gas processing applications, and does not include opportunities for using membrane technologies for air separation and biogas processing.

The membrane materials considered are segmented on the basis of type, such as organic polymeric membranes, inorganic membranes, and mixed matrix membranes (MMMs). Inorganic membranes are further segmented into zeolite membranes and carbon molecular sieve (CMS). Metal and ceramic membranes are not considered within the scope of this research.

Key findings

Gas separation membrane technologies are currently in an emerging phase of development, and have shown wide potential for being adopted for processing natural gas streams on the industrial scale. The membrane technologies have significant advantages over conventional gas separation technologies, owing to the small occupied footprint, energy savings, simple operation requirement, low capital and operation costs, and ability to be integrated into existing infrastructure.

At present, polymeric membranes have achieved significant adoption for natural gas separation applications, with many stakeholders involved in the development of these membrane materials. Inorganic membranes, such as zeolite membranes and carbon molecular sieve (CMS) membranes have also been identified as potential alternatives to polymeric membranes due to their resistance to impurities in gas streams, and high selectivity and permeability properties.

As researchers are focusing on fabricating cost effective inorganic membranes, mixed matrix membranes (MMMs) are fast emerging as the most practical alternative membrane technologies. These membranes combine the advantageous inherent properties of both organic and inorganic membrane materials, by being both easy to process and highly stable in challenging environments. The research focus for MMMs is focused toward tailoring separation permeability and selectivity required.

Major gas separation membrane developers are concentrated in the US, Canada, and Middle East owing to the presence of many tier 1 and tier 2 companies and significant natural gas operations in these regions. Several government agencies are funding research initiatives on the technology in these regions, with the focus being on developing novel membrane materials at an economical cost. While the technology development intensity is high in Europe, the rate of technology adoption is low.

End users of the technology require the membrane materials to be cost effective in fabrication and able to endure high flow rates. However, inorganic membranes are challenging to manufacture at low costs, demanding more research initiatives on this requirement. Larger membrane modules are increasingly being developed for processing high pressure flammable gases. The development of membranes that do not require high cost pre-treatment processes is an area of wide interest.

Future trends for membrane materials is expected to be geared toward developing performance tuned membrane materials that can handle gas flow rates that vary with time, and hybrid membranes made of polymeric materials combined with fluorine or clay. While nanoporous and nanocomposite-based membrane materials are at present in nascent stages of development, they are expected to gain significant research and development traction due to their ultrahigh permeability and selectivity properties.

You can read the full report here.

Adapted from press release by Francesca Brindle

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