Last week you may have seen media coverage about collaboration between researchers at ExxonMobil and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Their work together has led to a potential technology breakthrough that, if proven at scale, could reduce energy consumption in plastics manufacturing.

The results of their research were published in the nation’s leading, peer-reviewed journal, Science.

Essentially, this technology development employs a carbon-based membrane and a form of reverse osmosis to separate – at the molecular level –the building blocks needed to manufacture the plastics we use every day.

If this reverse osmosis process works at industry-sized scale, then deploying it may be up to 50 times more energy efficient than today’s separation technology which relies on significant volumes of heat and energy.

What might that mean?

It could eliminate 45 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions – the equivalent to the energy-related carbon dioxide emissions of about five million U.S. homes. And, again, if proven to be scalable, it could reduce global energy costs used to make plastics by $2 billion.

Chemical manufacturing as a whole is energy-intensive – accounting for about eight percent of global energy demand – though the benefits of clean, lightweight plastics in everything from packaging and agricultural production to medical technology and electronics are significant.

Since the global demand for plastics is expected to grow over the next quarter century as the world’s population increases from 7 billion to 9 billion, any development offering substantially reduced emissions is very welcome indeed.

There’s still a lot more research and more investment needed to see whether this technology will work at an industrial scale. The good news is that researchers at ExxonMobil and Georgia Tech are working every day with the aim of taking these promising ideas from vision to reality.


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