Feb. 5, 2008 Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne breakthrough may revolutionize ethylene production
 Scientists create environmentally friendly technology to produce commonly used compound

A new environmentally friendly technology created by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energys (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory may revolutionize the production of the world's most commonly produced organic compound, ethylene.
An Argonne research team led by senior ceramist Balu Balachandran devised a
hightemperature membrane that can produce ethylene from an ethane stream by removing pure hydrogen. This is a clean, energy-efficient way of producing a chemical that before required methods that were expensive and wasteful and also emitted a great deal of pollution,Balachandran said.
Ethylene has a vast number of uses in all aspects of industry. Farmers and horticulturalists use it as a plant hormone to promote flowering and ripening, especially in bananas. Doctors and surgeons have also long used ethylene as an anesthetic, while ethylenebased polymers can be found in everything from freezer bags to fiberglass.
Because the new membrane
lets only hydrogen pass through it, the ethane stream does not come into contact with atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen, preventing the creation of a miasma of greenhouse gases - nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide - associated with the traditional production of ethylene by pyrolysis, in which ethane is exposed to jets of hot steam. The worlds ethylene producers manufacture more than 75 million metric tons of ethylene per year, causing millions of metric tonsworth of greenhouse gas emissions.
Unlike pyrolysis, which requires the constant input of heat,
the hydrogen transport membrane produces the fuel needed in order to drive the reaction. By using air on one side of the membrane, the already-transported hydrogen can react with oxygen to provide energy. By using this membrane, we essentially enable the reaction to feed itself,Balachandran said. The heat is produced where it is needed.
The new membrane reactor also performs an additional chemical trick: By constantly removing hydrogen from the stream, the membrane alters the ratio of reactants to products, enabling the reaction to make more ethylene than it theoretically could have before reaching equilibrium. We are essentially confusing or cheating the thermodynamic limit,Balachandran said. The membrane reactor thinks: Hey, I havent reached equilibrium yet, let me take this reaction forward.’”
While Balachandrans team, which included chemists Stephen Dorris, Tae Lee, Chris Marshall and Charles Scouton, designed this experiment merely to prove the membranes capability to produce ethylene, he hopes to extend the project by pairing with an industrial partner who would produce the membranes commercially. Since the membrane reduces the number of steps required to produce ethylene, the technology could enable the chemical to be produced more cheaply, he said.
The results of the research are expected to be presented at the 2008 Clean Technology conference in Boston in June. The work was funded by the Department of Energy's Industrial Technology Program, which resides within its Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.
Argonne National Laboratory brings the world
s brightest scientists and engineers together to find exciting and creative new solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nations first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance Americas scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations,
Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy
s Office of Science.

Argonne National Laboratory

America's first national laboratory

Argonne National Laboratory is one of the U.S. Department of Energy's largest research centers. It is also the nation's first national laboratory, chartered in 1946.

Argonne is a direct descendant of the University of Chicago's Metallurgical 冶金学 Laboratory, part of the World War Two Manhattan Project. It was at the Met Lab where, on Dec. 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi and his band of about 50 colleagues created the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction 核分裂連鎖反応 in a racquets court at the University of Chicago. After the war, Argonne was given the mission of developing nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes. Over the years, Argonne's research expanded to include many other areas of science, engineering and technology. Argonne is not and never has been a weapons laboratory.

Today, the laboratory has about 2,800 employees, including about 1,000 scientists and engineers, of whom about 750 hold doctorate degrees. Argonne's annual operating budget of about $530 million supports upwards of 200 research projects, ranging from studies of the atomic nucleus to global climate change research. Since 1990, Argonne has worked with more than 600 companies and numerous federal agencies and other organizations.

Argonne occupies 1,500 wooded acres in DuPage County, Ill. The site is surrounded by forest preserve about 25 miles southwest of Chicago's Loop. The site also houses the U.S. Department of Energy's Chicago Operations Office.


Argonne research falls into five broad categories:

Basic science seeks solutions to a wide variety of scientific challenges. This includes experimental and theoretical work in materials science, physics, chemistry, biology, high-energy physics, and mathematics and computer science, including high-performance computing. This kind of basic research brings value to society today by helping lay the foundation for tomorrow's technological breakthroughs.

Scientific facilities like Argonne's Advanced Photon Source help advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for the future. The laboratory designs, builds and operates sophisticated research facilities that would be too expensive for a single company or university to build and operate. They are used by scientists from Argonne, industry, academia and other national laboratories, and often by scientists from other nations. The laboratory is also home to the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source, the Argonne Tandem Linear Accelerator System and other facilities.

  • Advanced Photon Source,
  • Argonne Tandem Linear Accelerator System,
  • Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility,
  • Center for Nanoscale Materials,
  • Electron Microscopy Center,
  • Intense Pulsed Neutron Source, and
  • Structural Biology Center.
  • Energy resources programs help insure a reliable supply of efficient and clean energy for the future. Argonne scientists and engineers are developing advanced technologies and systems for a number of energy applications, including nuclear reactors, batteries and fuel cells, transportation, and electric power generation and storage.

    Environmental management includes work on managing and solving the nation's environmental problems and promoting environmental stewardship. Research in this area includes alternative energy systems; environmental risk and economic impact assessments; hazardous waste site analysis and remediation planning; electrometallurgical treatment to prepare spent nuclear fuel for disposal; and new technologies for decontaminating and decommissioning aging nuclear reactors.

    National Security has increased in significance in recent years for the nation and for Argonne research. Argonne capabilities developed over the years for other purposes are helping counter the threats of terrorism. These capabilities include expertise in the nuclear fuel cycle, biology, chemistry, and systems analysis and modeling. This research is helping develop highly sensitive instruments and technologies to detect chemical, biological and radioactive threats and identify their sources. Other research is helping to detect and deter possible weapons proliferation or actual attacks.

    Industrial technology development is an important activity in moving benefits of Argonne's publicly funded research to industry to help strengthen the nation's technology base.

    Argonne's Division of Educational Programs provides a wide range of educational opportunities for faculty and students ranging from leading national universities to local junior high schools. More people attend educational programs at Argonne than at any other DOE national laboratory.