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Control of zeolite framework flexibility and pore topology for separation of ethane and ethylene

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Science  24 Nov 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6366, pp. 1068-1071
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao0092

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Purifying ethylene with flexible zeolites

Ethylene is a key feedstock for many chemicals and polymers, but its production requires cryogenic separation from ethane, an energy-consuming step. In theory, pure silica zeolites are well suited to separate olefins from paraffins. Bereciartua et al. synthesized a pure silica zeolite with very small pores, which, if static, would not adsorb either of these hydrocarbons. However, molecular dynamics suggested that the pores should be flexible. Indeed, in competitive adsorption experiments, the zeolite preferentially adsorbed ethylene from a mixed stream of ethylene and ethane.

Science, this issue p. 1068

Abstract

The discovery of new materials for separating ethylene from ethane by adsorption, instead of using cryogenic distillation, is a key milestone for molecular separations because of the multiple and widely extended uses of these molecules in industry. This technique has the potential to provide tremendous energy savings when compared with the currently used cryogenic distillation process for ethylene produced through steam cracking. Here we describe the synthesis and structural determination of a flexible pure silica zeolite (ITQ-55). This material can kinetically separate ethylene from ethane with an unprecedented selectivity of ~100, owing to its distinctive pore topology with large heart-shaped cages and framework flexibility. Control of such properties extends the boundaries for applicability of zeolites to challenging separations.

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