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Mar 18, 2017 11:48 AM EDT

University Of Minnesota-Led Study Develop Crystal Growth Process For Chemical Separations

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Researchers find way to easily create zeolite nanosheets
Researchers find way to easily create zeolite nanosheets
(Photo : Robert King/Newsmakers)

Researchers have developed a revolutionary one-step crystal growth process for making ultra-thin layers of material with molecular-sized pores. The team, led by the University of Minnesota, demonstrated the use of the material named zeolite nanosheets by making ultra-selective membranes for chemical separations.

The new membranes can separate individual molecules based on shape and size. This is believed to improve the energy-efficiency of chemical separation methods used to make everything from fuels to chemicals including pharmaceuticals, Phys.org reported.

The University of Minnesota-led study has been published in the journal "Nature." The researchers have also filed a provisional patent on the groundbreaking technology.

Michael Tsapatsis, lead researcher of the study, said that they were able to develop a process for zeolite nanosheet crystal growth. The University of Minnesota chemical engineering and materials science professor added that the process is faster and provides better quality nanosheets than ever before.

Most chemical and petrochemical purification processes today use heat like distillation, which are very energy-intensive. According to Science Daily, chemical separations based on distillation represent about 5 percent of the total energy consumption in the U.S.

With this new discovery, researchers have developed the first bottom-up process for direct growth of zeolite nanosheets. These nanosheets can be utilized to make high-quality molecular sieve membranes.

The new material is estimated to be only five nanometers thick and several micrometers wide, which is 10 times wider than previous zeolite nanosheets. The new nanosheets also grow in a consistent shape. This makes it much easier to make the membranes used in chemical purification.

Mi Young Jeon, a University of Minnesota chemical engineering and materials science Ph.D. graduate and the first author of the study, said that the new material is similar to tiling a floor with large, uniform tiles compared to small, irregular chips of the tile that was previously used. These uniform-shaped zeolite nanosheets create a much higher-quality membrane with surprisingly high separation values to filter out impurities.

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