Queen Mary scientists have created a new type of nanomembrane that presents a less energy-intensive way to fractionate hydrocarbons from crude oil.
The global production of crude oil is currently around 80 million barrels per day. Hydrocarbons extracted from crude oil are the main ingredients for manufacturing fossil fuels, plastics, and polymers. The process by which they are extracted is extremely energy intensive.
Most refineries process crude oil using atmospheric and vacuum distillation, in which crude oil is heated to separate compounds according to their boiling points. Typical refineries process 100,000–250,000 barrels/day—there are some processing over 1 million. The maximum temperature for the distillation varies based on the quality of the crude, but the distillation temperatures can exceed 500 °C. This process consumes 1100 terawatt-hours per year—nearly 1% of global energy use.
Membrane technology that can separate the molecules in crude oil by their different sizes and classes could be a far more energy efficient process, consuming 90% less energy than distillation columns. Exceptionally thin nanomembranes have proved successful for extracting fresh water from sea water by rejecting the salt while allowing the water to permeate through reverse osmosis (RO) process. The researchers sought to separate hydrocarbons from crude oil by a parallel method.
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