Researchers at The Ohio State University have developed a groundbreaking new hybrid membrane that could efficiently separate carbon dioxide (CO2) from the gas that comes from burning coal at power plants. | Photo courtesy of Office of Fossil Energy.
Most people probably don’t think a lot about membranes. But those thin, film-like sheets of material are important to things we take for granted every day. Take tap water, for instance. Chances are membranes were used to separate all kinds of things you don’t want to think about from the glass of water you just drank.
That’s just one example. The fact is that membranes are used in many industries and processes, from the food and beverage industry to petroleum processing. And today we’re closer than ever to using cost-effective membranes to help make coal-fired power plants cleaner.
Researchers at The Ohio State University have developed a groundbreaking new hybrid membrane that could efficiently separate carbon dioxide (CO2) from the gas that comes from burning coal at power plants. The new membrane was developed through a project funded by the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy and managed by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).
The result of Ohio State’s research is a game-changing technology that could make it less expensive to apply carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology at coal-fired power plants. CCUS captures, permanently stores or beneficially re-uses CO2. The environmental benefits of CCUS are significant. And there are other benefits as well: captured CO2 can be used to make new products and to recover hard-to-get untapped domestic oil and natural gas.
The problem is that current carbon capture technologies are expensive. That’s why researchers have looked to membranes, thin layers of either polymer (organic, plastic) or inorganic (metal, ceramic) materials that are permeable to the molecules they are meant to capture. Polymer membranes are mass produced and very cost effective, while inorganic membranes are expensive to produce but exhibit much better performance. The challenge is to develop a membrane that is both effective and economical. The team at Ohio State has done that.
Their new hybrid membrane consists of a thin layer of "zeolite Y" -- a particularly effective synthetic filtering material -- sandwiched between an inorganic intermediate and a polymer cover. These three layers sit atop a polymer support, which in turn rests on a woven backing. The result combines the separation performance of inorganic membranes with the cost-effectiveness of polymer membranes.
With the high energy costs of current CO2 separation technologies, the Ohio State team’s innovation is a welcomed development. According to NETL project manager José Figueroa, the hybrid membrane “is a breakthrough that could potentially lower costs associated with clean coal technologies."
So, thanks to the efforts of a group of dedicated researchers who saw the potential in a material most of us don’t even think about, we’re getting closer to the goal of deploying cost-effective CCUS technologies within 10 years -- an achievement that will help us meet environmental challenges and position the United States as a leader in the global clean energy race.