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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/M013693/1
Title: Isothermal Refining by Organic Solvent Nanofiltration - ISOREF
Principal Investigator: Livingston, Professor A
Other Investigators:
Chachuat, Dr B
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Shell
Department: Chemical Engineering
Organisation: Imperial College London
Scheme: Standard Research - NR1
Starts: 01 February 2015 Ends: 31 January 2017 Value (£): 294,665
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Design of Process systems Energy Efficiency
Manufacturing Machine & Plant
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Manufacturing
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
03 Sep 2014 ERM Interviews Panel 2 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Crude oil refining is (after chemicals production) the second most energy intensive industry in advanced economies. For example, refining consumes 6% of the total energy used in the US. Current refinery technology is based on distillation for separation of the crude oil into fractions with varying molecular weights, followed by further reactions on some of these fractions (reforming, hydrotreating, cracking etc), which must then be further distilled. Distillation involves converting a large fraction of a liquid feed into a gas by boiling, so that compounds present in the feed can be separated by means of differences in their boiling points. In refining, distillation typically account for more than half of all the energy consumed, since the phase change on boiling requires significant energy input.

One way of avoiding this large energy consumption would be to carry out fractionation in the liquid phase via a membrane. If a mixture of hydrocarbons is pressed by pressure against a membrane, and the membrane is permeable to only some of the materials, then we can separate the molecules that pass through the membrane from those that do not. This avoids the large energy injections of evaporation or distillation. Theoretical calculations show that the energy required for concentrating a mixture by membrane separation is less than 5% of the energy associated with distillation.

Not surprisingly, people have been interested in using membranes to separate and concentrate liquids for some time. The majority of membrane separations to date are water based. A major success is in the area of desalination, where membranes are used to separate fresh water out of seawater. Membranes are not generally used for molecular separations in organic systems, because until recently there were few membranes stable in organic liquids. This has changed recently - research at Imperial College has developed membranes that are stable in most organic systems. These have been commercialised through an Imperial spin out company, Membrane Extraction Technology (MET) which was acquired by Evonik Industries on 1 March 2010. Evonik MET has made a substantial investment in a large scale membrane manufacturing facility in West London, delivering on the UK Government's vision for Manufacturing the Future.

In many cases the required separation cannot be achieved in a single pass through a membrane, because the membrane does not discriminate highly enough between the different molecules that are present. In these cases, to achieve the required separation, the liquid can be processed through membranes multiple times. This arrangement of membranes is known as a membrane cascade.

Given the advances that have been made in the development of membranes for organic systems and their application in membrane cascades, this project will research the use of membranes for refining crude oil. Membranes do not require boiling and condensation, and so can be operated at a single temperature. This will reduce the needs for heating and cooling, and so the associated heat losses. Thus we expect that isothermal refining with organic solvent nanofiltration membranes will significantly reduce the energy requirements for manufacturing fuels and lube products from crude oil.

The project will work with a synthetic clean crude, made up to simulate the key hydrocarbon components of a real material. Experimental and simulation work will be used to design a membrane cascade to separate the synthetic crude; this cascade design will then be assembled and operated to prove the concept. Further simulations will then estimate what energy savings would result if isothermal refining were employed with a real crude. The project will work closely with partner Shell Gobal Solutions, who are a major company in oil refining and refinery technology.

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