They’re small and granular, but don’t let their size fool you. They’re zeolites, which, when used as catalysts, help turn raw, heavy petroleum into gasoline, jet fuel and an array of other products that support our modern lives.

In some instances, zeolites are intentionally designed not to convert at all, but instead adsorb – much like a sponge – specific molecules.

Whether structured as catalysts or adsorbents, zeolites are subject to rounds of meticulous updates and improvements.

And that’s what scientists at Spain’s Instituto de Tecnologia Quimica (ITQ) and ExxonMobil have done with the discovery of a new zeolite adsorbent. But, to be fair, this was more than a routine update. Their joint research has helped foster a truly groundbreaking solution.

This new heart-shaped material is a silica zeolite. It’s a potential game-changer, because it could use far less energy to extract ethylene out of ethane. Much like a sifter lightens flour for bakers in the kitchen, this new “flexible molecular sieve” material could help engineers manufacture ethylene while using much less energy.

That’s important, because ethylene is used to manufacture polymers. So, down the line, a more energy-efficient ethylene will shrink the environmental footprint of food containers, garbage bags, water bottles and other plastic products.

News of the discovery was first published in Science, a leading academic journal from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

ITQ and ExxonMobil scientists estimate that, if scaled to industrial use, this material, in conjunction with other novel separation processes, could cut the amount of energy used to purify ethylene by up to 25 percent, which would also significantly curb associated CO2 emissions.

More research is needed, but so far, indications are that this silica zeolite could mature into a truly transformative technology, proving that the smallest things can sometimes have the biggest impact.


Note: ITQ is a research center jointly run by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Polytechnic University of Valencia.


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