In an article published on May 19th 2016 in Science, Prof. Michael Zaworotko, Bernal Chair of Crystal Engineering and SFI Research Professor, and Dr. Kai-Jie Chen, reported that a sieve-like structure known as SIFSIX-2-Cu-i serves as a sponge for acetylene. This means that gas mixtures such as those generated in the petrochemical industry can be purified more efficiently, more specifically and without high energy demands. This is important because commodity purification alone currently accounts for between 10-15% of the world’s energy consumption. If the processes currently used, typically distillation, were replaced with more energy efficient technologies like these sponges, then the US alone could save 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and US$4 billion in energy costs annually.
This new invention offers an entirely more environmentally friendly, cost effective way to purify ethylene, the most intensively produced organic chemical in the world. In the bigger picture, similar approaches could work for other important purification processes such as carbon capture and water desalination leading to significantly reduced global consumption of energy and release of greenhouse gases. As noted by Prof. Zaworotko, “we are not dealing with incremental improvements in performance, but big leaps forward. This is because of the special nature of the nanoscale features of SIFSIX materials and our ability to control them”.