Designing the Next Generation of Chemical Separation Membranes

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Science  06 May 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6030, pp. 674-676
DOI: 10.1126/science.1203771

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Synthetic membranes are used in many separation processes, from industrial-scale ones—such as separating atmospheric gases for medical and industrial use, and removing salt from seawater—to smaller-scale processes in chemical synthesis and purification. Membranes are commonly solid materials, such as polymers, that have good mechanical stability and can be readily processed into high–surface area, defect-free, thin films. These features are critical for obtaining not only good chemical separation but also high throughput. Membrane-based chemical separations can have advantages over other methods—they can take less energy than distillation or liquefaction, use less space than absorbent materials, and operate in a continuous mode. In some cases, such as CO2 separations for CO2 capture, their performance must be improved. We discuss how membranes work, and some notable new approaches for improving their performance.