Source: DOE Success Story (
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New Membrane Technology Boosts Efficiency in Industrial Gas Processes
Membrane technology was first commercialized in the 1960s
and 1970s for well-known applications such as water filtration
and kidney dialysis. Membranes offered inexpensive, compact,
and energy-efficient separations for other processes as well—
such as industrial gas processing. For example, chemical
feedstocks—in this case, monomers (e.g., ethylene and propy-
lene) are the single largest operating cost in the manufacture
of polyolefins. Due to the intensely competitive nature of the
industry, monomer losses in vent streams are a major concern for
producers. These vent streams represent a significant opportunity
for recovery and recycling of raw materials.
To help achieve the potential of membranes for this and other
gas separation processes, innovation was needed. In addition to
membrane material research, development of robust industrial
membrane module devices was required, followed by process
design and scale-up for commercial application. This required a
multi-year, multi-step research and development (R&D) effort.
MTR was founded in 1982 as an R&D company with a long-term goal of developing marketable
membrane technologies, especially in the newly-emerging field of industrial gas separations.
For a small company, the initial challenges were daunting. However, with funding from the
SBIR programs of several agencies, including the Departments of Energy (DOE), Defense, and
Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Science
Foundation, the company was able to succeed in developing these technologies.
Because MTR was competing against firmly-entrenched technologies in well-established
industries, Phase II SBIR support of early field testing was essential to commercial acceptance of
the new membrane technologies. The outcome was their process to remove organic vapors from
air and nitrogen, leading to the first of MTR's R&D efforts that resulted in a commercial product.
An early version of this system was first sold in the early 1990s; since then, more than 100 units
have been installed worldwide in chemical and petrochemical plants. In 1997, the first VaporSep®
system—which has 10 times the capacity of most of the prior systems—was installed to treat
ethylene- and propylene-containing nitrogen purge gas streams in polyolefin plants. Similar
systems continue to be sold worldwide and have been used to recover a variety of chemicals,
including vinyl chloride monomer, isopentane, and 1-hexene, in addition to ethylene and
propylene. For a world-scale polyolefin plant, a VaporSep® unit typically recovers about 2,000 to
200,000 tons/year of monomer, valued at $1-10 million/ year.
MTR's VaporSep® systems have recovered about 2.1 million tons of volatile organic compounds
(VOCs) since 1992, which has saved over 115 trillion Btus in fuel. The value of fuel savings in
2008 was estimated at 33 trillion Btus and is expected to grow in subsequent years. Considering
data available for VaporSep® systems installed between 1992 to 2008, the capital investment has
typically been recovered in one to two years from the fuel value alone of the recovered monomer.
Over the last decade, with support from SBIR and DOE follow-
on funding, MTR has been able to conduct the R&D needed to
add membrane separation products for the oil and gas and refinery
businesses to its product portfolio, and is now working on greenhouse
gas/sustainable energy applications. The inherently energy-efficient,
environmentally-friendly nature of membrane separation processes
make them particularly good candidates for such applications. DOE,
EPA, and USDA are all contributing funds to advance early-stage
development for such applications as carbon capture and sequestration,
alcohol/water separations in biofuel production, coal-bed methane
recovery, and biogas.