Lawrence, Kan. — University and industry researchers have launched an 18-month, $1 million project to determine if furan, which comes from natural materials and not petroleum, can be a greener, less expensive plastic to use to separate gas in industrial settings.
The collaboration brings together the University of Kansas School of Engineering in Lawrence and the RAPID Manufacturing Institute for Process Intensification, which was started by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in 2017.
The research is supported by a $384,927 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and includes collaborations with Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Co., which developed furan to replace PET used in soda bottles; Hills Inc., a fiber extrusion equipment manufacturer in West Melbourne, Fla.; and Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a supplier of industrial gases and related equipment based in Allentown, Pa.
Furan comes from natural materials like fructose, according to Mark Shiflett, a distinguished foundation professor at the KU School of Engineering, who is leading the research work. The plastic also stops carbon dioxide from leaking out and oxygen from getting in, which keeps soda beverages carbonated and prevents taste problems, he added.
Those kinds of qualities could lead to applications in gas-separation technology. The new research — dubbed Project H22020 — aims to modernize gas-separation materials developed in the 1970s and 1980s with furanic membranes that have the potential to reduce capital costs by a factor of 10, increase hydrogen recovery by 20 percent, and decrease both waste and the cost of separation by 20 percent. That would be a breakthrough for companies that refine oil and produce hydrogen fuel cells.
"Think of it as a new plastic," Shiflett said in a news release.
Furanic polymers could be an ideal material to use for industrial gas separation because they're largely impermeable to larger gas molecules; however, they seem to allow smaller gas molecules to pass through, creating what Shiflett calls "a sweet spot."
"We're interested in studying them because we think that smaller molecules like hydrogen potentially can go through the plastic," he said, but not other gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane.
"These polymers are going to be an excellent way of purifying hydrogen for a lot of different industries, especially in the refining industry for making cleaner burning fuels, for hydrogen fuel cells and for making electricity," Shiflett said.
His lab team will conduct experiments with furanic-based membranes as a proof of concept in coordination with industry leaders in the plastics, plastics processing and gas-separation technologies. DuPont is donating the membranes that Hill is spinning into hollow fibers to be used in membrane modules for Air Products to do gas separations.
Shiflett said Air Products will "help us with assessing whether the gas separations that we're studying in our lab are good enough to be used commercially, because that's what they do for customers like NASA."
Work in Shiflett's lab will focus on polymer selection, hollow-fiber development, material characterization and membrane testing for mixed hydrogen streams, such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and hydrogen and nitrogen. The team also will conduct molecular simulations to model the results and guide the experiments, characterize the membrane materials with analytical techniques and develop optimization routines to evaluate thousands of different furanic-polymer compositions.
If the research produces a successful method to separate gases with furanic-based membranes, Shiflett said his lab then would work with its industry partners to bring the technology to the marketplace.
The gas separation market is projected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 9 percent in the coming decade, the release says, citing BCC Research Market Forecasting Group.