A new technology could dramatically reduce the costs and carbon emissions in the manufacturing of the world’s plastics supplies, researchers from Exxon Mobil and the Georgia Institute of Technology said Thursday.
The new system, which is still in development, is 50 times more energy efficient and could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 45 million tons globally per year — the equivalent emissions of 5 million U.S. homes, Exxon said. The industry also could save $2 billion annually.
The Exxon and Georgia Tech scientists worked together and published their findings Thursday in the prominent academic journal Science.
They’ve essentially developed a carbon-based membrane that can separate molecules as small as a nanometer — one-billionth the size of a meter (A sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick). The membrane acts as a filter to separate a chemical building block, called para-xylene, used to make plastics and polyester. The current industry methods use high-energy heating processes to separate those molecules. The new system can work at room temperature.
“In effect, we’d be using a filter with microscopic holes to do what an enormous amount of heat and energy currently do in a chemical process similar to that found in oil refining,” said Mike Kerby, corporate strategic research manager at Exxon Mobil, in a prepared statement.
Exxon and Georgia Tech cautioned that additional testing is still needed under more challenging conditions. They also need to develop the membranes more consistently and ensure they can hold up during long-term industrial use. Still, the results are promising enough that Exxon is investing in pursuing the technology for wide-scale global implementation.
Exxon Mobil Chemical is investing several billion dollars to increase the production of ethylene and polyethylene — the world’s most common plastic — at its Baytown and Mont Belvieu plants just east of Houston. The project represents Exxon Mobil’s first major U.S. chemical expansion in more than 15 years, with completion slated for 2017. Exxon and the Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Corp., known as SABIC, also are considering building another multi-billion-dollar petrochemical complex in Texas or Louisiana.
The petrochemical boom along the Gulf Coast is fueled by the cheap and ample amounts of natural gas and natural gas liquids extracted from U.S. shale through unconventional drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The ethane from natural gas is converted into ethylene, which is the primary building block for most plastics, and then transformed into polyethylene. The ultimate goal is for U.S. plastics manufacturing to supply much of the developing world in Asia, Africa and beyond.
The IHS research firm estimates more than 24 million metric tons of new polyethylene capacity — equivalent to one-fourth of global consumption — is coming online by 2020. About 8 million metric tons of the new production will come from the United States.
The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade group, counts more than 250 petrochemical projects that are getting built or planned across the country through 2023, creating about 70,000 jobs, including almost 16,000 in Texas. The combined cost is about $160 billion with about $50 billion of that total just in Texas.
Companies including Exxon, Chevron Phillips, Dow Chemical Co., BASF and LyondellBasell have multi-billion-dollar expansion projects underway in areas such as Baytown, Channelview, Mont Belvieu, La Porte and Freeport. Many will be done in a year or so.