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Purify p-xylene without the heat

By Mary Page Bailey |

Current commercial technologies for separating and purifying p-xylene — an important precursor for polyesters and plastics — from hydrocarbon mixtures involve phase-change techniques that require large amounts of thermal energy. Recently, a research team from Georgia Institute of Technology (Ga. Tech; Atlanta.; www.gatech.edu) and Exxon Mobil Corp. (Irving, Tex.; www.exxonmobil.com) demonstrated the separation of p-xylene at room temperature using organic-solvent reverse-osmosis (OSRO; diagram). Since it requires no thermal input, the OSRO method has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of energy required for p-xylene purification. Although reverse osmosis has been used for decades in water desalination, this is said to be its first application for the separation of hydrocarbon mixtures. The keystone of the OSRO technology is the complex structure of the membrane. First, a hollow-fiber membrane (HFM) is constructed from a commercially available polymer. Then, the HFM is chemically modified with crosslinking molecules, which protect the membrane’s mechanical properties. The fiber is next carbonized using a pyrolysis step, which converts the structure into a carbon molecular-sieve HFM. The molecular sieve has large…
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